by Ted Young (Summer 2011 intern)
The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program is proud to announce its successful effort to secure the donation of Dalip Singh Saund campaign items by his grandson, Eric Saund, to the National Museum of American History. Saund was the first Asian American, and first practitioner of a non-Abrahamic faith, to be elected to Congress.1 He is, to this day, the only Sikh to be elected to the national legislature.
Beyond the symbolism of his appointment, Saund’s life story and accomplishments in office is a story worth preserving. Born in 1899 in Punjab, India, Saund graduated from the University of Punjab in 1919 with a degree in mathematics and came to the U.S. in 1920 to pursue his studies at the University of California Berkley. He received both his Masters and PhD in mathematics but decided to pursue agriculture, like many of his California Punjabi peers, and start a lettuce farm in Westmoreland, California.
Saund’s political activities started while he was studying at UC Berkley. There, he stayed at a clubhouse owned by a local Sikh organization and became national president of the Hindustan Association of America. Later, he would campaign for the right for Asian Indians to naturalize and, with the help of the Hindustan Association of Imperial Valley, form the India Association of America to pursue this goal. The India Association of America was one of the biggest advocates of citizenship for Indians and supported lobbying efforts in Washington with the money they raised from Indian farmers. In 1946, Saund and his organization were successful and the Luce-Cellar Act was passed which granted Indian immigrants the right to naturalize. This Act allowed Indians to run for office and own land, which was significant for many farmers who had to rely on friends who were citizens to hold the land they farmed in trust.
On December 16, 1949, Saund became one of the first Indian immigrants to take advantage of the land ownership opportunity. He proceeded to run for, and win, the seat for Justice of The Peace of Westmoreland in 1950. However, he was not allowed to take the position when the court ruled that he could not serve since he had been a citizen for less than the required year. Saund went on to win the seat again in 1952. He served on this position until 1957 when he was elected to Congress. While in Congress, Saund was a staunch supporter of civil rights and was appointed to the Foreign Affairs Committee during his first term. In his second term, he was appointed to the Interior and Insular Committee. He succeeded in amending the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 which lead to the creation of the U.S. Agency for International Development and the entire reorganization of how the U.S. distributed Foreign Aid.2 Saund’s amendment gave the U.S. more control on how its foreign aid money was spent by reducing the lifespan of foreign aid agreements. This was meant to keep American foreign aid money out of the hands of governments that were unpopular or hostile to the U.S.3
Congressman Saund passed away on April 22nd, 1973. HomeSpun’s acquisitions reflect the contributions that Dalip Singh Saund has made to California political history, Asian American history, and American history. The materials include the 1956 and 1960 bumper stickers, thimbles, ribbon, and a mechanical pencil. They represent a victory in the Indian American struggle for citizenship and belonging, as well as the ideals of the U.S. to be led by all of its inhabitants. These artifacts will be held at the Smithsonian. They are relevant not only to the HomeSpun exhibit, but to telling our part of the story as Americans in future exhibitions.
Ted Young is an African American Studies Major and Sociology Minor at Oberlin College.