Why Relations?

This webinar is the first in the Indigenous Settler Relations Collaboration's 2021 Critical Public Conversations series: Exploring Indigenous Settler Relations

As the founders and co-directors of the Indigenous Settler Relations Collaboration we have made a deliberate choice to focus on relationships and relationality as a site of enquiry. Elsewhere, we have argued that ‘creating more just relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian state is one of the most profound and important challenges this country faces’ (Nakata & Maddison, 2020). Our approach to framing this challenge as a field of research draws from the structuralism of both settler colonial studies and decolonial studies / critical race theory. These fields posit that the ongoing injustice in relationships between Indigenous peoples and settler societies is perpetuated by the structures of colonialism and racism. This is undoubtedly true, and it is important to map and contest those structures, recognising that it is Indigenous people’s ongoing resistance that most often makes these structures visible. At the same time, however, much mainstream scholarship focuses on the lives and bodies of Indigenous peoples, drawing attention away from the structures that perpetuate injustice.

By contrast, our approach centres relationality as a way of decentering disciplinary authority to know Indigenous peoples. Focusing on relations and relationality is expansive. Indigenous settler relations are inevitable and everywhere – in every part of the continent, in every school, hospital, prison and university, in every discipline. Focusing on relationality reveals and denaturalises the structures of colonialism and racism and opens a productive space for transformative scholarship and engagement. This approach is not without risk, however, as relations are not always among equals. A critical and reflexive approach to Indigenous-settler relations then, becomes a practice of exploring these expansive sites of potential transformation while also considering whether the very relation itself is part of the problem.


Professor Sarah Maddison is Professor of Politics in the School of Social and Political Sciences, and Director of the Australian Centre. She is particularly interested in work that helps reconceptualise political relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the Australian settler state, including critical examinations of a range of relevant public policies. Her recent work has focused on the treaty process in Victoria, and she is currently working with the Australian Centre’s Deputy Director, Julia Hurst, exploring the role of truth-telling in treaty making. Sarah has also designed the Professional Certificate in Treaty, which includes the Preparing for Treaty series of Melbourne MicroCerts.

Sarah has published widely in international journals and is the author or editor of nine books including, most recently, The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems (2019). Her other books in the field include The Limits of Settler Colonial Reconciliation (2016), Conflict Transformation and Reconciliation (2015), Beyond White Guilt (2011), Unsettling the Settler State (2011), and Black Politics (2009). Sarah has led numerous research projects and was an Australian Research Council Future Fellow for 2011-14, undertaking a project that examined reconciliation in Australia, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and Guatemala. Her current ARC project is exploring intersections in Indigenous and settler governance regimes.

Associate Professor Sana Nakata is  Associate Dean, Indigenous at the Faculty of Arts at The University of Melbourne. Sana trained as a lawyer and political theorist, Sana’s research is centred upon developing an approach for thinking politically about childhood in ways that improve the capacity of adult decision-makers to act in their interests. Sana has recently completed an ARC Discovery Indigenous Research Fellowship examining Representations of Children in Australian Political Controversies (2016-2019). She is the author of Childhood Citizenship, Governance and Policy (2015), and along with Professor Sarah Maddison, edits the Springer book series: Indigenous Settler Relations in Australia and the World.

The presenters have granted permission for this recording to be used for personal viewing and educational purposes.