The 2015 Rose Parade marked a historic moment for Sikh Americans as the first ever Sikh float glided down the avenues of Pasadena, Calif. Jan. 1, representing the community’s rich heritage in the annual parade of flowers, music and sports.
With the theme “A Sikh American Journey,” the float celebrated the more than 125-year history of Sikhs in America, putting a spotlight on their values and contributions to American society — from the early days of struggle to the present day, where Sikh Americans hold important roles in all walks of life.
The 55-foot float was crowned by a replica of the 102-year-old Stockton Gurdwara as a symbol of the Sikh American community, and the long way it has come since the first immigrants arrived in the U.S. from India in 1899. The Gurdwara on South Grant Street in Stockton, Calif. was the first Sikh house of worship established in the U.S., according to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
A joint effort of the United Sikh Mission, SALDEF, SikhLens, the Khalsa Care Foundation and a team of 500 dedicated volunteers, the float was conceived to fit into this year’s Rose Parade theme of “Inspiring Stories.”
“The Sikh American story speaks to American ideals, such as a dedication to family, hard and honest work, and an enterprising spirit, and that’s why the Sikh American float was featured in America’s New Year celebrations this year,” Rashpal Dhindsa, founder of United Sikh Mission, said in a statement.
In early 2010, Dhindsa began spearheading the movement for the Sikh American community’s participation in the Rose Parade, a New Year’s Day tradition viewed by millions of Americans. The float was secured for the 2015 parade after a series of meetings and presentations, with funds and design ideas sourced from within the Sikh American community. It took $250,000 in donations and around two months of hard work to make the float a reality.
Twelve men and women representing the diverse Sikh American community and its pioneering spirit and sense of service, rode the float during the parade, including correctional officer Sukhvinder Singh, Girl Scout Manveena Singh, deputy sheriff Harinder Kaur Khalsa, police cadet Amandeep Singh, pilot Arpinder Kaur and Chapman University film student Harjus Singh Sethi.
Besides the Stockton Gurdwara, the float also featured a locomotive and cornucopia with peaches, grapes and walnuts to honor the Sikhs who worked in America as laborers and farmers, like Didar Singh Bains, known as the “Peach King of California” for growing the most peaches in the country.
The float was adorned with 2,500 gerbera daisies and 17,000 multicolored roses, which aided the visual storytelling of the “Sikh American Journey.”
Paying tribute to pioneers in Sikh American history, such as Dalip Singh Saund — the first Asian American and Sikh to serve in the U.S. Congress as a representative of the 29th District of California — the float displayed images of key Sikh American figures like civil rights advocate Valerie Kaur.
The float is representative of the Sikh American community’s resilience in overcoming challenges to integrate with the fabric of American life, whether it is dealing with discrimination or the lack of awareness about Sikhism in the U.S. — highlighted by incidents such as the fatal shooting at Oak Creek Gurdwara in 2012.
In 2013, SALDEF collaborated with Stanford University researchers to conduct the first public perception assessment of Sikh Americans, titled “Turban Myth.” The results showed that 70 percent of Americans could not identify a Sikh American, and one out of every five Americans felt anger or apprehension when they saw a Sikh stranger with a turban and beard.
Jasjit Singh, executive director of SALDEF, said in a statement, “By bringing our shared American history to the forefront at the Rose Parade, we are addressing bias and generating major Sikh American awareness. In fact, we believe that sharing our story benefits any community who is perceived to be ‘different’ across the United States.”