Category Archives: IAHP Updates

Culturally Appropriate or Cultural Appropriation? A Few Thoughts

by Priya Chhaya

In early April, pop star Selena Gomez incited media buzz when she appeared in public wearing a bindi. She is not the first celebrity to wear something Indian, but I have to ask:

Should I feel offended that someone has chosen to appropriate a piece of Indian cultural identity for entertainment? Or is it another sign of how elements of my heritage have trickled into the American subconscious? If she “meant well,” is it OK? Or is it never OK for someone who is not Indian to wear such a symbol without preserving its meaning? And, at what point does something go from being culturally appropriate to cultural appropriation?

Selena Gomez image

Let’s consider three scenarios.

Scenario 1: So You Think You Can Dance contestants perform a Bollywood-style dance number. The performance includes elements of hip-hop and classical Indian styles.

Scenario 2: Selena Gomez hires a composer to add tabla and sitar to a song to give it a strong beat. She attends performances wearing Indian clothing, and composes a video that includes elements of Indian dancing.

Scenario 3: Akon, an American hip-hop artist is asked by a Bollywood producer to sing on a major Bollywood movie track. That song, Chammak Challo, becomes a global hit, with the hip-hop artist singing all the Hindi lyrics himself.

As I consider these scenarios, I realize: it’s complicated.

So You Think You Can Dance performances include forms from many cultures. Here, dance is like a language — without boundaries, with different dialects but easily understandable as a form of expression. I consider this to be culturally appropriate because the compositions and choreography pays due respect to the dance forms as a form of expression-without reducing its origins to a stereotype.

Chammak Challo is a little grayer. On one hand, its melds two musical forms from two different countries, but he’s a non-native speaker singing in Hindi. As a publicity/marketing piece for Ra.One, it worked really well but there is a potential for misunderstanding—did he understand what he was singing, or was it a form of mimicry? I think it was culturally appropriate, because while he was singing in a foreign language, he didn’t try and change his image or try to fit his persona into what someone-singing-in-Hindi should look like.

Which brings me back to Selena Gomez. The song has a catchy hook, but the music video places the tabla players with turbans around a fire in a desert and her dancers perform the stereotypical snake-charmer head movement that has come to represent Indian dancing. This seems like appropriation to me because it reinforces age-old stereotypes of exoticisms and the “other.”  This re-enforcement continues through her attire and performances where she tried to ‘become’ Indian in a way that rings false.

Today, Indians and Indian-Americans defy stereotypes. We are authors, congressional representatives, and CEO’s of major American corporations, and I still get excited when I see barriers being broken in the entertainment industry such as Mindy Kaling on the Mindy Project or Amitabh Bachchan in the Great Gatsby.  As such, Indians and India should not been seen or presented through one specific lens or a single caricature.

What do you think?


Video: Event at the Consulate General of India in New York City

The Indian American Heritage Project was recently in New York City promoting our project and upcoming exhibition, Beyond Bollywood! Check out this video featuring some highlights from a presentation event at the Consulate General of India in New York City on February 28, 2013.


SALGA Artifacts Acquired

SALGA Postcard

SALGA Postcard

Through the joint efforts of the Asian Pacific American Program’s HomeSpun Project and the National Museum of American History (NMAH), The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) recently donated a variety of materials to the Archives Center, NMAH, Smithsonian Institution.

Founded in 1991, SALGA is a New York City based organization promoting the civil rights of all South Asian Americans through awareness, empowerment, and the provision of safe spaces. SALGA participates in a range of activities ranging from HIV/AIDS awareness, to immigration advocacy, to support groups, to book clubs, to social gatherings.

SALGA Newsletter

SALGA Newsletter

The materials will join the Archives Center Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Collection (click to download PDF). This collection contains publications, advertising ephemera, posters, and other materials related to the LGBT community throughout the United States. SALGA newsletters, flyers for events, and outreach materials inform its members and non-members of critical issues facing primarily LGBT South Asian Americans. These materials helped connect people in an age before the Internet, facilitating their adjustment to life in New York City.

SALGA has gained prominence within New York City’s Indian American community. It has worked collaboratively to be able to march in the annual Indian Day Parade in New York City. They are widely known and acknowledged by mainstream gay and lesbian communities as serving a demographic otherwise unattended.

2000 Parade

2000 Parade

The organization’s generous contribution of artifacts and documents, only some of which are shown here, helps HomeSpun include the multiple voices of the Indian American community and helps the Archives Center house a more comprehensive LGBT collection. The SALGA materials housed at the Archives Center will provide researchers with an opportunity to learn about the experiences of the South Asian LGBT community during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This is part of the Smithsonian’s larger effort to represent LGBT communities in terms of civil rights, HIV/AIDS awareness, and visual arts. People who have lived through an era are able to have their history documented for future use by researchers through their organizational records. The SALGA materials are a precious primary resource documenting the history of an important facet of the LGBT experience.

Gay City Newspaper Feature

Gay City Newspaper Feature

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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in IAHP Updates, Identity


Dalip Singh Saund Artifacts Acquired

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.

Dalip Singh Saund Artifacts

Dalip Singh Saund campaign artifacts. 1956 and 1960 bumper stickers, thimbles, ribbon, and a mechanical pencil.

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.

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Posted by on August 17, 2011 in IAHP Updates


The Scripps Spelling Bee and Indian Americans

by Pawan Dhingra

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee

Sukanya Roy, winner of the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee. Photos by Pawan Dhingra, Smithsonian APA Program.

Pawan Dhingra, HomeSpun curator, attended the 2011 Scripps Spelling Bee to collect important stories about the Indian American life. Here, he reflects on his two-day experience and discusses the history of Indian American youths who have stood out at this competition.

Sukanya’s tall, thin frame trembled a bit for the first time all night, as she enunciated her final set of letters: c-y-m-o-t-r-i-c-h-o-u-s. Yet, her long hair continued to fall straight down, a fitting sign of control over the word she had just spelled, which means having wavy hair. With that final word correctly spelled, Sukanya Roy had just won the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Overwhelmed with excitement and exhaustion, she had an uncontrollable smile as she accepted her trophy, live on ESPN.

It had been a long night, around 11pm, that had started with thirteen finalists at 8:30pm. Each, along with the other 262 competitors at this years’ Bee, had already proven themselves formidable spellers as well as friendly competitors. As they asked one another to sign their Bee photobooks, ran through the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center just outside of Washington DC, and went up to the podium to spell words I could not even pronounce, they seemed a focused yet joyous bunch. As one spelled a word correctly, he would be greeted by high-fives from his competitors as he sat back down. When a word was spelled incorrectly, it was not just the parents who showed signs of grief; other spellers did as well. The competition had brought them closer together.

The contestants were almost an equal number of boys and girls, came from all over the country and from other parts of the world, and ranged in ages from eight to fifteen. Of this wide range of impressive youth, one trend stood out to me: the over-representation of Indian American participants. For instance, of the final thirteen, seven were Indian American. Sukanya became the fourth Indian American in a row to win the championship, and the eighth in the past twelve competitions. The first Indian American to win was Balu Natarajan in 1985.

Answers abound to the question of why Indian Americans dominate spelling bees. Rather than focus on that question here, what is also noteworthy is the highly competitive dimension to the Spelling Bee. While often framed as simply studious or even as geeks, these contestants have much in common with athletes. They put in hours of preparation; they go through rounds of competitions; they compete on a national stage for money and fame; and they take winning seriously. It is not a coincidence that the Spelling Bee is broadcast live on ESPN. And like other major league champions, Sukanya and her family were awarded with a visit to the White House and a meeting with the President.

Spelling Bees clearly have become a significant part of Indian American youths’ extracurricular activities. For the Roy’s, however, it seems to be coming to a close. As a past winner, Sukanya cannot participate again. And as an only child, it may be another Indian American family hosting the trophy next year. In any case, the youth who take part will deserve applause and then some well-earned rest.

Pawan Dhingra is a staff member at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program and Curator for HomeSpun. He is also an associate professor of sociology and comparative American studies at Oberlin College.

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Posted by on June 23, 2011 in Current Events, IAHP Updates


HomeSpun Curator Vacancy Announcement

HomeSpun: Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project, an initiative of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, seeks a Museum Curator to work out of the Program’s Washington, DC office.

The employee serves as the curator for a Smithsonian exhibition (working title: “Homespun“) on the Indian American (i.e., Americans of South Asian Indian origin) experience and will perform research in the subject matter area, reviewing appropriate resources, including scholarly and popular literature; and analyzing and synthesizing materials, and drafting concept and script for the exhibition; and may develop educational programs, including publications and a website to accompany the exhibition.

The Smithsonian Institution values and seeks a diverse workforce. Join us in “Inspiring Generations through Knowledge and Discovery.”

Click here for more information or to apply for the position.

Background on the HomeSpun project can be found here.

Please note the announcement will close on May 17, 2010.


  • Use research methods to examine specific topics in the field of the Indian American experience, (i.e., Americans of South Asian origin) review appropriate resources, including scholarly and popular literature, and analyze and synthesize materials.
  • Develop a draft concept and script for the exhibition; vet the script as appropriate with other scholars and an exhibition advisory board. Also function as the program manager of the exhibition project.
  • Aid the Advisory Council in raising funds for the exhibition and communicate its purpose and progress through talks, presentations, and production of needed materials both in Washington, DC and around the U.S., and via telephone and web-based means.
  • Perform field research, interviewing individuals and groups as appropriate.


  • Experience: For IS-12:One year of full-time experience at the IS-11 grade that is close or equivalent to the work of this job performing activities such as serving as the principal curator of a museum exhibition documenting the experience of Americans of South Asian origin; performing research and field work; developing exhibition-related educational programs, publications, and/or websites; etc.
  • Experience: For IS-11: One year of full-time experience at the IS-09 grade that is close to or equivalent to the work of this job performing activities such as serving as the assistant curator of a museum exhibition documenting the experience of Americans of South Asian origin; performing research and field work; developing exhibition-related educational programs, publications, and/or websites; etc.
  • Or Education: Three full years of progressively higher level graduate education leading to a Ph.D degree or Ph.D. or equivalent doctoral degree.
  • Special Instructions for Foreign Education: If you are qualifying by education and/or you have education completed in a foreign college/university described above, it is your responsibility to provide transcripts and/or proof of U.S. accreditation for foreign study.
  • Part-time and/or unpaid experience related to this position will be considered to determine the total number of years and months of experience. Be sure to note the number of paid or unpaid hours worked each week
  • Qualification requirements must be met within 30 days of the job announcement closing date.

The Smithsonian embraces diversity and equal employment opportunity (

Cross-posted from Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program website.


The Beginning


Welcome to the Indian American Story, a blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program’s initiative HomeSpun: Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project. To learn more about the project, visit the HomeSpun website here.

We intend this blog to be community driven and have, by word of mouth and other methods, slowly solicited guest authors and contributors from the Indian American community. If you’d like to participate, check out the About page to see how to do so.

What’s Happening

It’s an exciting time as we get the HomeSpun rolling. Of course, we still need a lot of help. But we’ve managed to get enough support to hire a HomeSpun coordinator, who will help us in this beginning phase of the project. We’ll introduce you later.

In addition, we’re beginning to put together a video series. It’s all still in the beginning phases, so not a lot of details, but it’s definitely exciting. We’ll see how the pilot shoot turns out next week and maybe give you all a sneak peek.

So yeah, we’ll try the keep the ball rolling as much as possible. In the meantime, you can keep informed on our efforts by going to the APA program main website, following us on twitter, facebook, youtube or flickr. And of course, the HomeSpun website.

Thanks for visiting! Come back soon!


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