Wayfinding: A Photoethnography of Indigenous Migration

Anthropologists Dolly Kikon and Bengt G. Karlsson collaborated with photographer Andrzej Markiewicz to trace indigenous migrants from the borderland of Northeast India between 2013-2015.



This exhibition is concerned with the lives and lifeworlds of indigenous migrants who have travelled from the faraway Northeastern frontier to the expanding cities of South India. This movement does not involve the crossing of any international border, yet both geographically and culturally it is a movement into a very different place.

It is a movement away from predominantly rural livelihoods with subsistence agriculture and politics revolving around ethnic homelands – with armed struggles and massive human rights violations – and a corrupt local state structure, to a life in major Indian cities, where migrants are seen as outsiders. Yet where their un-Indian looks and English language skills help provide jobs in the growing, global service sector.

The exhibition is part of a larger anthropological research project where we examine why an increasing number of indigenous youth from Northeast India have started to migrate, leaving the land, at this particular point in time. This mobility has to be understood in the context of an affirmative action regime and a political culture that privilege sedentarism: that people stay put in place and claim rights to ancestral territories.

We focus on what labour migration to the south and to the metropolis entails in relation to care for family members and community in the hills. By doing so we aim to assess the cultural fissures at work in people’s attachment to the places of their journeys. The young indigenous migrants seem to be out on a migration route without fixed destinations, struggling to make out what and where home is. We refer to this as wayfinding: a voyage without a map or beaten paths or pathways to follow and with no clear destination or end station. But rather as a form of movement where the traveller constantly is adjusting the direction, seeking out new places and possibilities as he or she is moving on. And as the young are leaving – no longer interested in cultivating the land – we ask what the future holds for the indigenous communities of Northeast India.

“It is their first life journey out of Nagaland. Our prayer is that we have done whatever we could do. We told them that we are sending them outside so that some path opens up for them.”

Mother in Dimapur about her daughter and her friends who have gone to work in a five star hotel in Pune.

View more photographs from the exhibition


Karlsson, Bengt G. and Kikon, Dolly. “Wayfinding: Indigenous Migrants in the Service Sector of Metropolitan India,” in South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies Volume 40, Issue 3, 2017, pp. 447-462. Published online: 14 May 2017.


In the last decade, large numbers of indigenous youth from the uplands of Northeast India have migrated to metropolitan cities across the country. Many end up in the new service sector, getting jobs in high-end restaurants, shopping malls and spas. The demand for their labour is due to their un-Indian ‘exotic Asian’ appearance and a reputation for being hardworking and loyal. Such labour market value is a remarkable reversal of their position considering the earlier colonial stereotypes of their savagery and disobedience, reproduced through the de-politicisation of their armed insurrections during the post-colonial period. This paper addresses their daily experiences of vulnerability and marginality as well as the freedom and aspirations that a migratory life seem to engender.

More information

Visit the Wayfinding website

Project details


Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (The Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences)



Project team

Dr Dolly Kikon
Professor Bengt G. Karlsson
Andrej Markiewicz


Dr Dolly Kikon