Indigenous Sovereignty: Activism and the Imagination

Free Public Lecture

Indigenous Sovereignty: Activism and the Imagination

2017 Returning Harvard Chair of Australian Studies Lecture

The recent Uluru Statement from the Heart (May 2017) and the Final Report of the Referendum Council (June 2017), the result of dialogues across Aboriginal Australia, are significant expressions of a rapidly evolving discourse on sovereignty in Australia. For some groups and individuals, pursuing Aboriginal sovereignty has been the only basis on which Indigenous rights can be properly pursued. The original crime on which white Australia is founded is the violent imposition of sovereignty, without cession or extinguishment.

For other Aboriginal activists and intellectuals, thinking in terms of sovereignty has been a delusion or ‘injusticeable’; Aboriginal rights are to be pursued through existing institutions of the law and government. Currently these strands within Aboriginal political life are being transformed by the discourse of Makarrata (truth-telling and agreement) and constitutional recognition of a ‘First Nations Voice'.

As someone who spent decades working in Aboriginal politics in Central and Northern Australia, Alexis Wright has been an activist for Aboriginal sovereignty but has carried this commitment into the literary sphere. Her novel The Swan Book (2013) is a futuristic meditation on the limits of sovereignty from an Indigenous perspective: what if national borders disappear under the rising waters of global warming? What if national governments are superseded by global rule? What if the social contract that holds sovereignty intact through institutions collapses in anarchy? The Swan Book explores these scenarios, including Indigenous leadership, in a complex interplay of utopian and dystopian modes.

Although in recent years there has been development in ideas such as republics of letters and world literary systems, within these models of literary governance, citizenship and mobility, the question of sovereignty has been largely absent. This lecture argues that Alexis Wright’s work is an instance of how the literary imaginary can address real world issues of Indigenous rights and national sovereignty within the Indigenous world novel.

Presented by the Australian Centre with the Harvard University Committee on Australian Studies, and the Harvard Club of Victoria.


  • Professor Philip Mead
    Professor Philip Mead, Chair of Australian Literature