Indigenous mobilities to and through Australia: agency and sovereignties

This project will create previously unwritten histories of Indigenous travel to and through Australia, exploring the historical mobilities of Aboriginal peoples, Torres Strait Islanders, Maori and Pacific Islanders through three targeted case studies.

Aims and background

Indigenous peoples have always travelled and moved extensively, and colonisation brought new reasons for Indigenous movement as well as Indigenous peoples from New Zealand and the Pacific to Australia.

This project will create previously unwritten histories of Indigenous travel to and through Australia, exploring the historical mobilities of Aboriginal peoples, Torres Strait Islanders, Maori and Pacific Islanders through three targeted case studies. These case studies traverse diverse geographies, from the eastern seaboard through Koori Victoria and into Central Australia, and cover a broad timeframe from early contact to contemporary travel and its politics and meanings.

The team comprises Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers with long-standing research collaborations who are already undertaking innovative work in Indigenous mobilities histories. The methodology combines deep archival work with crucial engagement with Indigenous communities, ontologies and epistemologies. It aims to contribute to ethical scholarship which benefits Indigenous communities and social justice outcomes.

This project offers two innovations to current scholarly understandings of Indigenous mobilities (recently noted by Rowse as the first of three “very promising” areas of developing scholarship relating to Indigenous history [Johnson & Rowse, 2018]).

  1. A clear emphasis on Indigenous agency and choice. To date scholars have focussed on the ways in which travel was coerced or forced or free. This Project will examine Indigenous mobility beyond these three categories. While remaining alert to the oppressive impact of colonialism on Indigenous lives, we aim to foreground Indigenous choice and action outside of, because of and in opposition to colonialism. Our case studies thus cover a broad spectrum of mobilities that display various levels of choice, and pay attention to the diversity of Indigenous (including Māoriand Pasifika) peoples who have travelled the Australian continent over the last three centuries and more
  2. An emphasis on border crossing beyond a generalised binary of Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Indigenous mobilities have always involved traversing Indigenous geographies and polities. For Indigenous people, this provides a distinctive meaning to the concept of border crossing in travel. To consider this is to recognise the place of sovereignty in the study of mobilities in settler colonial spaces. The travel of Indigenous peoples involved cross-cultural encounters between Indigenous nations for the purpose of trade, ceremony, diplomacy, marriage or the fulfilment of obligations to geographically distant Country and kin

The larger questions of this Project will be explored through three case studies of Indigenous mobility to and within Australia from imperial and colonial moments to the present, covering a broad spectrum of geographies.

Significantly, these interlinked research programs have developed not just from long-standing relationships between the investigators, but also the investigators’ relationships with each community and its Country. Each case study is thus attentive to the local particularities and meanings for unique Indigenous epistemologies. This Project is driven by the urgent imperative to bring a decolonising approach, methodology and ethics to a fast-moving field of research: the new mobilities paradigm.

We will do this by drawing theoretical and methodological insights from Indigenous Studies into a burgeoning field of historical and geographical scholarship and by remaining mindful of Indigenous borders, cultural drivers and agency. We wish to draw attention to issues contemporary Indigenous communities grapple with as they live with the ongoing implications of historical movement.

There has not yet been serious scholarly attention paid to these significant subjects and their ongoing social, political and cultural consequences. It will produce a precise set of scholarly and public research outputs, and encourage Indigenous perspectives in academic and public domains by engaging with Indigenous communities and scholars. In tracing these histories of mobility we ask:

  1. How does travel work within diverse Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies, and what can scholarly engagement with Indigenous cultural perspectives bring to an understanding of historical travel by Indigenous people? In what ways do examples of Indigenous travel demonstrate the continued articulation of sovereignties, either on their own Country or the Country of others?
  2. How do we understand the question of agency in Indigenous travel?  Can we move beyond foregrounding the operation of colonial power to examine examples of travel outside of settler colonialism, and, to highlight when Indigenous peoples were negotiating and navigating travel shaped by colonialism, their agency and the meanings they derived from travel?
  3. What is the ongoing significance of historical Indigenous mobilities? What does it mean to live on the Country of another Indigenous nation? What does historical travel mean for Indigenous people now, as global movements of Indigenous people and anti-colonial struggles shape contemporary relationships and interactions?

Project details

Grant identifier


Administering organisation

LaTrobe University

Chief investigators

Associate Professor Katherine Ellinghaus, LaTrobe University
Dr Rachel Standfield, University of Melbourne
Professor Barry Judd, University of Melbourne
Dr Sianan Healy, LaTrobe University
Dr Julie Andrews, LaTrobe University

Total ARC funding


Planned commencement date

January 2021