South Asian Oral History Project

The University of Washington Libraries greatly recognizes the importance of oral histories as an important primary source for historical narratives. This recognition has led to the South Asian Oral History Project (SAOHP) at the University of Washington Libraries.

The SAOHP represents one of the first attempts in the U.S. to record pan-South Asian immigrant experiences in the Pacific Northwest using the medium of oral history. This initiative not only has the goal of preserving the history of South Asian immigration to the region, but also of making these historical resources/material available to everyone.

This project began in 2005 through a generous grant to the UW Libraries Special Collections from Irene Joshi, the former South Asia Studies Librarian at UW Libraries. Her contribution of $7000 set in motion this exciting project of remembering and celebrating the achievements of South Asians.The second, third and fourth phase of this project were initiated and completed by Deepa Banerjee, South Asian Studies Librarian who joined UW Libraries in 2006.

In December 2012, this project became the basis for the publication of book titled "Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest" published by University of Washington Press. In 2019, a documentary "Raga and Tala: South Asian Performing Artists in the Pacific Northwest" was coproduced by Deepa Banerjee and Emma Hinchliffe based on the interviews by performing artists from the fourth phase.

About the Collection

The SAOHP has been conducted in four phases. Each phase is marked by key historical events that drew South Asians to the United States like the end of World War Two and the partition of India and Pakistan, the opening of U.S. immigration laws in 1965 to people from South Asia, and the growth of key technology industries in the region that attracted South Asian students and workers.

Taken together, these interviews make up a unique record of the lives of South Asians who have contributed greatly to the fabric and texture of the region. These interviews reflect religious, linguistic, occupational and gender diversity and provide rich insight into changing experiences of South Asians in the Pacific Northwest.

The transcriptions and audio recordings from phase one and the transcription and audio/video recordings from phase two through four are available digitally.

The phase two, three and four interviews were made possible through UW Libraries' 21st Century Grant, Friends of the Libraries Grant, King County's 4Culture, Microsoft, and additional grants and donations by the local South Asian organizations such as Indian Association of Western Washington, Indian American Education Foundation and private donors.

These interviews were part of Ellis Island Exhibit. The History Channel worked with a firm called ESI Design on a new exhibit for the Ellis Island National Immigration History Museum in New York. The interviews were used in an audio installation called "The Peopling of America Center" which played short, spoken comments from migrants about their journeys to America, including the stories of South Asian immigrants. The excerpts were read by a voice-over actor, in both Hindi and in English. This audio streamed continuously out of speakers embedded in the wall. The exhibit opened in July of 2011 and will stay open for 10 years. More information is available in the UWeek article entitled "Donation leads to database, exhibit and book -- all honoring the contribution of immigrants from South Asia".

Project Phases

Phase One: 1950s Immigrants

The first phase of this project documented the lives and careers of individuals who immigrated to the region in the 1950s. Interviews from phase one were conducted in 2004 and 2005. The first set of narrators shared some of their amazing experiences, such as working on the early Apollo space shuttle launches, joining the Peace Corp, attending the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, and being some of the earliest South Asian students enrolled at the University of Washington.

Phase Two: 1960s and 1970s Immigrants

This phase documented the experiences of South Asians who arrived in the mid-1960's through the 1970's, a period following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which loosened restrictions and encouraged the migration of South Asian workers and students. These interviews were conducted from 2006-2007.

In 2006, Deepa Banerjee, the South Asian Studies Librarian, joined the University of Washington Libraries to establish the second phase of this project. The interviews were conducted by the oral historian Amy Bhatt, then a PhD student at the University of Washington. An advisory committee made up of seven individuals from the Libraries and South Asian Community was also established to help select individuals to be interviewed and to guide the second and third phase of the project.

This phase documented the experiences of South Asians who arrived in the mid-1960's through the 1970's, a period following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which loosened restrictions and encouraged the migration of South Asian workers and students. This phase explored questions such as:

  • What was it like to immigrate here during this period?
  • What challenges did they face?
  • How did they negotiate them to find success in the United States?
  • How do they view themselves as both South Asian and American today?

In this period, several South Asians came to the Pacific NW as students, but also to work in the burgeoning aeronautics field through Boeing. This group of immigrants demonstrated a high level of civic and cultural engagement, while creating new outlets for cultural concerns and expression. They worked in fields as diverse as engineering, business, real estate, education, medicine, and as homemakers. Their activities ranged from founding continuing music societies such as Ragamala, to organizing classes to teach South Asian languages to children, and creating a political voice for the South Asian community through the Indian American Political Advocacy Council. Far from assimilating, these immigrants have carved out important and visible spaces in the fabric of American society.

The men and women interviewed represent a wide range of stories and backgrounds. They include Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, as well as Hindus, Muslims, and Zoroastrians. Some of the narrators married and created families within their communities, while others chose more divergent paths.

Phase Three: 1980s Immigrants

The third phase, established in 2008, focused on the decade which marked the passage of the Family Reunification Act. This resulted in a further increase of South Asian immigration. This phase recorded eleven stories by the immigrants who came to US in 1980s and later. They played a key role in the development of the regional high-tech economy. In this period, the growth of technology industries in the region led by Microsoft, along with geo-political shifts in South Asia also increased the size and presence of the South Asian community.

Phase Four

The fourth phase of South Asian Oral History Project was established in early 2018 by Deepa Banerjee, South Asian Studies Librarian. The goal of this phase of the project was not to simply capture immigrant stories as was done in the previous three phases of this project but also to capture the many significant contributions of very talented South Asian classical performing artists (vocalists, instrumentalists and dancers) in the Pacific Northwest.

This phase captures the stories of these artists, their art and their contributions in a way that would serve as a primary resource for many years to come. These stories will provide valuable insights about the diasporic art forms and how these intersect with many other art forms from other communities. These artists are bringing very powerful social change and empowering dancers, vocalists and instrumentalists. They are bringing the artists, communities and various ethnicities together and providing them opportunities to experience the joy of shared artistic journeys.

This phase also documents the stories of the students of these artists who share their perspectives about what it means to learn these art forms and how their lives have been profoundly impacted in a very positive way . Learning these art forms have changed their outlook towards life.

The very powerful and inspirational stories from this phase led to the making of a documentary titled "Raga and Tala: South Asian Performing Artists in the Pacific Northwest" which was co-produced by Deepa Banerjee and Emma Hinchliffe, a graduate student at the University of Washington.

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