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How Indian Americans Have Shaped the State

From the Ganges to Ten Thousand Lakes: Immigration from the Subcontinent to Minnesota

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Black and white photograph of Dr. Padmakar K. Dixit, his wife, and their two daughters in Minnesota, 1962.

Dr. Padmakar K. Dixit, his wife, and their two daughters in Minnesota, 1962.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, job prospects in farming and on railroads drew the first Indian immigrants—mostly men—from Asia to the United States. It wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, however, that Minnesota officially opened its doors to Indians.

From 1965 through the early 1990s, many came for higher degrees and eventually settled into largely professional jobs. In the later 1990s and early 2000s, a technology boom and temporary visas for skilled labor brought hundreds of thousands of Indians; some of them eventually settled in Minnesota. This surge encouraged businesses such as grocery stores and restaurants to open and led to the establishment of new organizations and services.

The Indian American population in Minnesota has grown steadily, doubling every ten years since 1980. By 2017, about 50,000 Indian Americans call Minnesota their home. Over 80 percent of them are educated professionals who have contributed to the state as doctors, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Others, including the second generation, are making strides in other fields, such as politics, government, education, media, art, theater, the armed forces, and philanthropy.

Diaspora and Resettlement Patterns

In the 1960s, Indian Americans lived in and around both of the Twin Cities campuses of the University of Minnesota. But when they looked into buying houses, many chose suburbs—particularly ones with reputations for good schools and high academic standards. In the 1970s and 1980s, a large percentage of Indians lived in New Brighton. In the 2010s, the suburbs of Eden Prairie, Edina, Maple Grove, Plymouth, and Woodbury have seen significant growth in their Indian populations.

While the majority of Indian Americans live in the Twin Cities, other Minnesotan cities also have pockets of Indian American populations, especially those with businesses that hire skilled professionals. Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic and IBM, has a large enough Indian American population to warrant its own community organizations and places of worship. Other cities, such as Mankato, St. Cloud, Winona, Duluth, and even Soudan, report that 0.33 percent to 0.11 percent of their populations are Indian Americans.

Not all Indian Americans came to Minnesota directly from India. Many came from former British island colonies such as Trinidad, Fiji, Guyana, and Malaysia, where their ancestors had been sent from India as indentured workers and laborers in the late 1800s.

Another set of Indian immigrants came from East Africa, particularly Uganda, when Idi Amin expelled that nation’s Asian minority in 1972. While the latter immigrants have largely assimilated with other Indians in Minnesota, the ones from the West Indies have for the most part maintained their own identity by creating and maintaining different organizations and places of worship.

When the Minnesota community was small in the 1960s and 1970s, people from different parts of India (who spoke different languages and had different customs) socialized together in a way they never would have in India. Events organized by the India Association helped. In later decades, however, as the community grew, Indians in Minnesota started to group together by language or region, and the community began to fragment.

The First Wave (Pre–1965): Invited Students, Researchers, and Visitors

The earliest call for young Indian students to study in the U.S. came in 1902, when Swami Rama Tirtha began touring the country, giving lectures on Hinduism and surveying universities to recommend. In 1915, a journal for Hindu students in the United States, the Hindusthanee Times, listed the University of Minnesota as one of the top American schools for foreign studies.

The first known instance of an Indian moving permanently to Minnesota also marked the first enrollment of an Indian at the University of Minnesota. Hira Singh, a Sikh from Lahore (which was then a part of India), enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1904 to study mining engineering. Singh was one of the few Indian men, and later women, who came to study at the university. In 1931, another student, Mohan Singh Sekhon, arrived on a Japanese freighter. He went to Hamline University and later to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a degree in medicine. Sekhon stayed in the United States; his daughter also became a medical doctor.

Another early visitor to Minnesota was Paramahansa Yogananda, a Hindu spiritual teacher who visited the state several times to lecture and spread the message of kriya yoga, a yoga technique and part of a spiritual path. His visits and lectures encouraged the establishment of the Self-Realization Fellowship in California and, later, over 500 temples and retreats around the world, including one in Minneapolis in 1927.

In the early years, most Indians seeking higher education abroad came from wealthy families. Since India was still under British rule, students went to the United Kingdom to study in prestigious institutions. But after India’s independence in 1947, many Indian students started to look to American colleges and universities for higher degrees. In the 1940s and 1950s, the University of Minnesota invited several Indian students to study, conduct research, and earn their PhDs. The university’s Indian student population rose from 94 in 1944 to 1,607 in 1964.

These students (mostly men) and their wives formed the first Indian cultural organizations in Minnesota. Informally in 1943 and formally in 1946, they created a student organization called the Indo-American Club, which later became the Indian Student Association (ISA). Most of their early gatherings were potluck dinners that celebrated Indian festivals and were held in student apartments. Later, in the 1970s, as the student population grew, events such as cultural programs and film screenings moved to campus auditoriums. A handful of these students found jobs in Minnesota, mostly in the medical and technology fields.

One of the earliest immigrants to Minnesota was biochemist Dr. Padmakar K. Dixit, who was offered a job in 1958 to run the anatomy lab at the University of Minnesota. In 1961, Dr. Dixit officiated the first Hindu wedding in Minnesota, which required the Minnesota Legislature to pass a special law. The Dixits’ house, bought in 1962 in Southeast Minneapolis, was the first house in Minnesota purchased by an Indian American. It served as a refuge for Indian students when they arrived in Minnesota.

The Second Wave: After the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (1965–1990s)

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prompted immigration reform, and a year later, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act ended the quota system based on national origins and established a new immigration policy designed to attract skilled labor to the United States. It also included provisions for reuniting immigrant families.

For Indian students graduating with higher and professional degrees, this policy opened up new opportunities for working and settling in Minnesota. Due to their specialized degrees in technology, science, and medicine, many were hired by large Minnesota companies such as 3M, Honeywell, and Control Data, and by local hospitals and research institutions. To retain this highly talented pool of workers, employers sponsored them for green cards (permanent resident cards), which allowed them to stay in the United States indefinitely.

In the early years, many of these students were men. With good jobs and green cards in hand, they traveled back to India to marry. Most of these marriages were arranged by their families, which made it easier for them to make suitable matches during the short vacations they were granted by their employers.

Encouraged by the family reunification provision in the Immigration Act of 1965, several Indian Americans in Minnesota sponsored not only immediate family members but also parents and siblings to become permanent residents. This created a strong need to establish organizations and businesses to meet the needs of a diverse and growing population. In 1980, the first year in which the federal census asked people if they were Asian Indians, the population of Indian Americans in Minnesota was estimated to be 3,670. By 1990, it had grown to about 8,234.

Many Indian organizations were established in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, including the India Club (later renamed the India Association of Minnesota, or IAM). Most of these were concentrated in the Twin Cities, where the Indian population was growing. Since India is a diverse country with many languages, ethnicities, traditions, and religions, immigrants from different Indian regions formed their own groups as their populations grew. These included the Bengali Association, Gujarati Samaj, Minnesota Sangeetha Kannada Koota, Minnesota Malayalee Association, Marathi Association of Minnesota, Minnesota Punjabi Society, Odisha Society of Minnesota, Tamil Association of Minnesota, and Telugu Association of Minnesota. Faith-based organizations such as Geeta Ashram, Hindu Society of Minnesota, Islamic Center, Jain Center, Meditation Center, Sikh Gurudwara, and Indian Christian churches of different denominations were started. Members first met in small gatherings in people’s homes or in community centers and later moved into their own buildings.

To help children learn about their Indian heritage, the secular Bharat School/School of India for Languages and Culture (SILC) was formed, followed by other faith-based schools. On the music and performing arts side, the Indian Music Society of Minnesota (IMSOM) and Ragamala, Katha, and Nrityalaya dance schools as well as Pangea World Theater were formed. Minneapolis-based community radio station KFAI began broadcasting Indian music.

As Indian Americans settled in and their population grew, entrepreneurs started businesses catering to Indian Americans. These included a couple of Indian grocery stores as well as a few restaurants serving mostly North Indian cuisine. Tandoor, the longest-running Indian restaurant in Minnesota, opened in Northeast Minneapolis in 1982.

During this period, Indian Americans looked for ways to educate the broader Minnesota community about India and its diversity. In 1979, IAM and SILC started participating at the Festival of Nations to showcase Indian culture; in 1983, IAM introduced India Day (later named IndiaFest), a day-long festival focusing on Indian culture. In 1992, IAM collaborated with the Minnesota Historical Society and started an oral history project, recording the experiences of the earliest American Indian Immigrants to Minnesota (1950–1960s). Indian Americans who had acquired U.S. citizenship also became involved in American politics. They founded the Asian Indian American Republicans of Minnesota and Minnesota Asian Indian Democratic Association (MAIDA) in 1992 and 1994, respectively.

The Third Wave: Y2K and the Technology Boom (Late 1990s to 2000s)

The Immigration Act of 1990 approved the H1-B visa, which temporarily employed highly skilled, college-educated foreign workers in specialty areas such as technology, medicine, and the sciences. As the year 2000 approached and the need to fix computer programs to accurately reflect dates grew, this task was outsourced to Indian companies. As a result, the government granted several hundreds of H1B visas to software programmers for work in high-tech companies in Minnesota.

The success of this effort led to additional software projects; soon, large numbers of skilled computer professionals began arriving in Minnesota. While many of them remained only for the duration of a project, others were able to change their visa status to permanent residency. By 2010, the Indian population in Minnesota doubled to 33,031. By 2014, it reached 40,000.

This influx of both temporary and permanent Indian Americans changed the landscape of Indian American businesses and organizations. Indian grocery stores such as Pooja Grocers, Patel Brothers (later Little India) on Central Avenue, and others in areas with high concentrations of Indian customers opened for business. Dozens of restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines from different parts of India also opened. IndiaFest, organized by IAM and held in August each year, grew large enough to require a move from the Landmark Center to the grounds of the Capitol Mall.

Additional regional and religious institutions were established, each catering to different Indian linguistic regions, spiritual practices, and their sub-sects. Places of worship (such as the Sri Venkateswara Temple), performing arts organizations, clothes boutiques, caterers, and tailors began to offer their services.

SEWA-AIFW (Asian Indian Family Wellness) was created in 2004 to deal with challenges that came with population growth: protecting women in abusive relationships, providing health education, and caring for home-bound seniors and under-privileged people.

Status, Education, Culture, Identity

35 percent of Indian Americans in Minnesota are naturalized citizens. This is the lowest among all Asians and may be due to a larger transient population temporarily here for work. 46 percent of Indian Americans are homeowners. This is also low compared to other Asians and again reflects a population that may be here temporarily.

Indian Americans are, by and large, a prosperous immigrant group. They earn the highest median household income—$91,151—compared to $56, 456 for all Minnesotans and $61,000 for Asians. The poverty rate is less than 3.4 percent compared to 11 percent for all Minnesotans and 16.9 percent for Asians. Indian Americans report the lowest unemployment rate at less than 5 percent, compared to 9.3 percent for other Asians.

Indians place a high emphasis on education and, like their counterparts in other states, have the highest educational qualifications of all ethnic groups in the U.S. Since it was higher education that brought Indians to Minnesota, it is not surprising that over 83 percent of Indian Minnesotans have bachelors’ or advanced degrees and over 47 percent have post-graduate or professional degrees. Many of their children, the second generation, have followed their parents’ footsteps in excelling and getting college degrees. Students from India make up the second-largest group of international students in the United States, choosing not just the University of Minnesota but also other prestigious institutions, including state and private colleges.

Although Indian Americans assimilate well into the broader community, they also like to keep in touch with their heritage and families. Many visit their relatives in India regularly or invite them to Minnesota for extended stays. Indian Americans, like other Asian Americans, tend to view their achievements as collective rather than individual, and as reflections of their families and communities.

Though a majority of Indian Americans are educated and fluent in English, they face various forms of prejudice and discrimination. This has ranged from overt hostility during and after national crises (like the Iranian hostage crisis, 1979–1981, and 9/11) to more subtle forms: being overlooked for promotion, stereotyped as illiterate, or treated as an employee rather than a supervisor. Many Indian Minnesotans felt fearful after the 2017 presidential inauguration, when anti-immigrant attackers committed acts of violence and harassment against Indian Americans in other parts of the country.

Contributions to Minnesota

As scientists and engineers, a large number of Indian Americans have contributed to Minnesota companies such as 3M and Medtronic. Indian American scientists and engineers hold patents and have conducted ground-breaking research. Others have started innovative high-tech companies. Several Indian Americans, such as Sam and Sumita Mitra, a husband-and-wife team of 3M research scientists, have won the highest technical awards offered by their companies.

A high percentage of Indians work in medical fields, serving as doctors, surgeons, specialists, and educators at the Mayo Clinic, the University of Minnesota, and other hospitals and clinics. Many of them, like Dr. Amit Sood, from Mayo, are well known nationally and internationally for their contributions in their respective fields.

Indian Americans operate an estimated 2,404 businesses in Minnesota. These businesses, which produce about $740 million in combined sales and an annual payroll of $140 million, provide jobs for about 4, 000 employees. One entrepreneur, Mahendra Nath, has been inducted into the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.

Indian Americans, particularly the second generation, have become increasingly involved in government and public service fields, contributing at both national and state levels. Gopal Khanna served in high-ranking positions in both President George W. Bush’s and Governor Tim Pawlenty’s cabinets; Professor Varadarajan V. Chari worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Two second-generation Indian Americans, Neel Kashkari and Narayana Rao Kocherlakota, became presidents of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. In 1996, Satveer Chaudhary became the first Asian American member of the Minnesota Legislature and the fourth person with Asian Indian ancestry elected to a state legislature in the United States. A few second generation Indian Americans have enrolled in the armed forces.

Several Indian Americans are professors and heads of academic departments. Dr. Sri Zaheer (Carlson School of Management) and Dr. Bruce Corrie (Concordia University) have made significant contributions in their positions as dean and associate vice president of university relations, respectively. Indian Americans have also entered the K-12 education field as teachers and administrators.

The media is another field in which Indian-Americans have made a mark and brought diversity. TV journalist Fred De Sam Lazaro has brought attention to India through his series Undertold Stories on PBS. TV personalities like Vineeta Sawkar and reporters such as Kavita Kumar and Neal Justin make regular mainstream contributions.

Even though a large number of Indian Americans choose medical, law, or technology careers, many others have made a mark in Minnesota’s art and theater scenes and have exposed Minnesotans to Indian dance, theater, and music. Notable among these are the Ragamala, Katha, and Ananya dance theaters and Pangea and Dreamland Arts theaters as well as the Indian Music Society of Minnesota.

Contributing to the food scene and exposing Minnesotans to dishes from all over India—not just the Tandoori and Punjabi dishes of the past—are several Indian restaurants, including a food truck called Hot Indian Foods. Also making great strides in educating Minnesotans and popularizing Indian food is Indian American chef Raghavan Iyer. Iyer has authored several cookbooks, including the first-ever Betty Crocker cook-book on Indian cuisine.

Teachers such as Punjabhai Patel are active in promoting the ancient Indian traditions of yoga and meditation at temples and through private lessons.

Indian Americans contribute to many philanthropic activities, both in India and in Minnesota. They serve on the boards of non-profits, and philanthropists such as Dr. S. K. Dash make generous financial contributions to social causes. The Shreya Dixit Memorial and the Compassionate Action foundations have raised awareness of the problems of distracted driving and animal exploitation, respectively. Many Indian Americans also regularly cook and serve in soup kitchens. Building on these contributions, renewable-energy companies from India such as Suzlon have started investing in Minnesota.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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  • Related Resources

Boyd, Cynthia. "Asians Fastest-Growing Ethnic Group in Minnesota." MinnPost, June 13, 2013.
https://www.minnpost.com/community-sketchbook/2013/06/asians-fastest-growing-ethnic-group-minnesota

Cole, B. Erin. Beyond Bollywood: Piece of Minnesota History. St Paul: Unpublished, 2016.

Corrie, Bruce P. "Expanding Connections, Building on Contributions of Minnsotans from Indian." St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 29, 2007.

Corrie, Bruce P., and Sarah Radosevich. "The Economic Contributions of Immigrants in Minnesota." St. Paul: September 2013.
http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hub/172912/file-371412567-pdf/Economic_Contributions_of_Immigrants_in_Minnesota_2013.pdf

——— . "Minnesota–India Economic Relations: A Turning Point?" Minnesota Business, October 20, 2015.

Gada, Ram. Celebrating 60 Years of Indian American Life in Minnesota. Eden Prairie: Unpublished, 2016.

"Hindoo is Here to Study Mining." Minneapolis Journal, August 29, 1905.

Lal, Vinay. The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America. Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2008.

Shah, Allie. "Asian Indian Numbers in Metro Surge." Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 28, 2011.

——— . "State Immigration Shift Mirrors National Trend in Minnesota, a Shift in the Tide of Immigration." Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 20, 2012.

State of the Asian Pacific Minnesotans: 2010 Census and 2008–2010 American Community Survey Report. St Paul: Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, 2012.

Smith, Kelly. “Indian Families in Minnesota Are On Edge After U.S. Attacks.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 11, 2017.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Dr. Padmakar K. Dixit, his wife, and their two daughters in Minnesota, 1962.
Black and white photograph of Dr. Padmakar K. Dixit, his wife, and their two daughters in Minnesota, 1962.
Portrait of Paramahansa Yogananda, a Hindu spiritual leader and teacher of priya yoga, ca. 1920.
Portrait of Paramahansa Yogananda, a Hindu spiritual leader and teacher of priya yoga, ca. 1920.
Black and white photograph of Ram Gada (center) prepares to leave India for Minnesota ca. 1960. Used with the permission of Ram Gada.
Black and white photograph of Ram Gada (center) prepares to leave India for Minnesota ca. 1960. Used with the permission of Ram Gada.
Black and white photograph of Preeti Mathur (first row, center left) at Bombay Airport in April 1978 with family on the eve of her departure to the United States. Used with the permission of Preeti Mathur.
Black and white photograph of Preeti Mathur (first row, center left) at Bombay Airport in April 1978 with family on the eve of her departure to the United States. Used with the permission of Preeti Mathur.
Black and white photograph of Sam (Smarajit) and Sumita Mitra, a husband-and-wife team of 3M research scientists, display their U.S. patent for copolymerizable UV stabilizers, 1987.
Black and white photograph of Sam (Smarajit) and Sumita Mitra, a husband-and-wife team of 3M research scientists, display their U.S. patent for copolymerizable UV stabilizers, 1987.
Color image of picnic attendees in St. Paul raise the national flag of India at an event held to celebrate India’s independence from Great Britain. Photographed by Anoop Mathur in August 2003.
Color image of picnic attendees in St. Paul raise the national flag of India at an event held to celebrate India’s independence from Great Britain. Photographed by Anoop Mathur in August 2003.
Color image of an interfaith Prayer held in St. Paul on September 11, 2002, at the State Capitol by the India Association of Minnesota to commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Color image of an interfaith Prayer held in St. Paul on September 11, 2002, at the State Capitol by the India Association of Minnesota to commemorate the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Color image of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove. Photographed by Flickr user Paul Weimer on September 4, 2011.
Color image of the Hindu Temple of Minnesota in Maple Grove. Photographed by Flickr user Paul Weimer on September 4, 2011.
Color image of students in a Malayalam class (level 1) pose for a photograph at the School of India for Languages and Culture (SILC) on Social Studies Day, ca. 2015, in St. Paul.
Color image of students in a Malayalam class (level 1) pose for a photograph at the School of India for Languages and Culture (SILC) on Social Studies Day, ca. 2015, in St. Paul.
Color image of Pooja Grocers, 855 45th Avenue Northeast, Minneapolis. Photographed by Preeti Mathur in March 2017.
Color image of Pooja Grocers, 855 45th Avenue Northeast, Minneapolis. Photographed by Preeti Mathur in March 2017.
Color image of varieties of chapati flour on sale at Pooja Grocers. Photographed by Preeti Mathur in March 2017.
Color image of varieties of chapati flour on sale at Pooja Grocers. Photographed by Preeti Mathur in March 2017.
Color image of a Wedding sari and blouse, 1967.
Color image of a Wedding sari and blouse, 1967.
Color image of a child's black-and-white cotton vest and skirt made in India, 1967.
Color image of a child's black-and-white cotton vest and skirt made in India, 1967.

Chronology

1904

Hira Singh comes to the University of Minnesota.

1931

Mohan Singh Sekhon enrolls in the University of Minnesota. He is the first Indian American to settle in Minnesota.

1944

The University of Minnesota begins to invite Indian students to study and conduct research on its campus. In this first year of enrollment, the population of Indian students in Minnesota reaches 94.

1964

The University of Minnesota enrolls 1,607 Indian students.

1965

The U.S. Congress passes the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, ending immigration quotas and giving priority to highly-skilled immigrants. Students begin to arrive in Minnesota in larger numbers.

1970

A twenty-year period of growth and development within the Indian American community begins. Many Indian American immigrants sponsor family members. Several organizations and businesses catering to this population are established.

1973

India Club (renamed the India Association of Minnesota in 1980) is formed to represent the Indian community to other Minnesotans.

1979

The School of India for Languages and Culture (SILC) is established to help children of Indian descent learn about and connect with their heritage.

1980

The Census Bureau begins counting Asian Indians; their number in Minnesota grows to 3, 670.

1983

The first India Day (later called India Fest) is held at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.

1990

The Immigration Act of 1990 approves the H1-B visa. An unprecedented number of Indians begin arriving in Minnesota to work in high tech companies. The Indian population is estimated at 8,234.

1992

The first of a series of Oral History Projects in collaboration with the Minnesota Historical Society begins. By 2016, eight others are completed.

2006

The Hindu Temple, one of the largest in the United States, opens in a new location in Maple Grove.

2010

The population of Indians in Minnesota grows to 33,031 and changes the landscape for Indian businesses and organizations. Many additional businesses, such as restaurants and grocery stores, open in several cities.

2017

Minnesota’s Indian population reaches 50,000.