Moving to Australia means making a life on the unceded sovereign territories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. That’s something Sam Iti Prendergast has grappled with, as one of at least 150,000 Māori who’d made their home in Australia.
This is an edited version of Sam’s piece first published in Waka Kuaka / The Journal of the Polynesian Society.
Growing up in Aotearoa, I imagined myself as part of the ocean.
“New Zealand” felt like an island to me then — full of uncles in diving masks filling our tables with crayfish, aunties cackling so loud in the muddy ocean shallows that their voices flooded bays. My koro was a fisherman and my cousins are too.
The ocean is not a metaphor, the ocean is home. It returns us to the Pacific when we lose ourselves in the bindings of the nation state. It teaches us that our smallness is real, even when our connections are vast.
At home in the inland Waikato — too far from the sea — I open my laptop and type the words “my ideal Pacific” into a Google search bar, the title of a Teresia Teaiwa poem. Her poetry has followed me throughout my PhD, from Wurundjeri land in Australia to Lenape land in the United States and back to the lands of Tainui, where I was born and where I now live.
But, in an act of misdirection, the internet sends me elsewhere, to a British travel site that reads: “Choosing your ideal South Pacific Island.” Now I’m scrolling past visions of white sand and overwater bungalows, wondering what happens in a storm.
“Have you always felt drawn to the South Pacific,” the digital travel agent asks, “with its promise of castaway, palm-dotted islands and footprint-free sand?”
I scream-laugh because that’s the only response I have, and then shriek again when the “South Pacific specialists” explain that each island has its “individual appeal”.
“For example, French Polynesia has the lion’s share of high-sheen resorts, whereas part of Samoa’s allure is its lack of development.” Then, as if salt water does not connect lands, as if oceans tear apart at perforated lines, we learn that “the South Pacific combines well with a trip to New Zealand or Australia” — those two floating nations beyond the Pacific’s reach.
The thread of horror that runs through this commercial description of the Pacific connects in strange ways to a different kind of disfiguring that haunts the Pacific diaspora. Colonial understandings of the Pacific linger like toxins in the seas that connect island to island, shaping not only what happens to this place, but how we, as Indigenous peoples, come to know each other’s lands.
In the settler nations of Australia and New Zealand, the processes of colonisation have produced the illusion that the organisational power of settler political sovereignty is normal and permanent.
When Australia allows me entry, it invites me on to someone else’s sovereign territories without their permission. When I enter Dharug land, the infrastructure of the nation tells me that I am in the Australian city of Sydney, subject to the terms of the Australian government’s borders and laws.
When New Zealand welcomes you in through the Auckland airport, it ushers you on to Tainui land, but not without a reminder that your life will be subject to New Zealand’s rules and regulations.
The material realities of the settler nation determine the possibilities for how we, as Pacific Indigenous peoples, relate to one another when we build our lives on the unceded lands of fellow Indigenous peoples.
One of the crucial questions we need to ask is how we better understand the complexities of our migrations. How do we navigate our own accountability and responsibility when we make lives on other Indigenous peoples’ occupied territories?
Since the early 1970s, the Australian government has allowed all New Zealand citizens to live and work in Australia, on First Nations territories, without applying for a visa. Until the year 2000, New Zealanders in Australia could apply for permanent residency and then citizenship after a few years of continuous residency in Australia.
Then, in 2001, the Australian government, led by the conservative prime minister John Howard, altered the trans-Tasman travel arrangements and dissolved the pathways to permanence. New Zealand citizens could still move to Australia, but they would no longer become eligible for permanent residency after two years.
This was a significant shift because it meant that New Zealand citizens could live in Australia for decades without ever having access to social security networks — severely limiting access to vital safety networks like domestic violence services, emergency housing assistance, disability and health services, and youth social security or youth allowance payments.
My whānau moved to Australia in 2003, when I was 12, and it wasn’t until I turned 18 that I learned about my lack of access to social security as a New Zealand citizen in Australia.
In 2014, I wrote about these issues for the Guardian Australia. I avoided the question of Indigenous sovereignty and ended by staking a claim to Australia as my home. And while I could choose to forget the article, relegating it to the field of past mistakes, it represents a sharp reminder of how easy it is to erase the specificities of place when faced with the injustices produced by nation-state bureaucracies.
Back then, I knew that I lived on unceded Kaurna land, but Australian immigration practices dictated the realities of life for me and for many Pacific peoples living in Australia, including Māori. At the time of the article, I was trying to arrange health services for a New Zealand citizen relative who had no means to leave Australia and who was denied access to Australian services because of their immigration status.
This experience taught me about the dire material consequences of immigration uncertainty. Australia possessed much of the organisational power over our lives and so I developed a politics of demanding “rights” in a way that upheld the nation state and undermined the reality of Indigenous sovereignty.
I bring this up not as an act of self-flagellation, but as an example of how the state tricks us and lures us in. In 2014, I was not an academic or a researcher. I was a young migrant frustrated with the Australian government.
In toying with our lives, the nation makes its claim to sovereignty feel real — a mechanism it uses to distract from ongoing Indigenous sovereignty.
Since 2014, Australia has drastically increased deportations of New Zealand citizen migrants, from fewer than five deportations in 2013 to 2776 between January 2015 and August 2022. Māori make up 41.8 percent of New Zealand citizens that the Australian government deports. Pacific peoples make up 22 percent.
Thousands of people are deported; hundreds of thousands more are vulnerable to deportation.
It’s a crisis which demands urgency. At the same time, we must understand that any intervention addressing deportations and immigration vulnerability will take place within the ongoing colonial project of the Australian settler state. And, as Aboriginal scholar and organiser Crystal McKinnon argues, movements that call for rights from a settler government can reify the nation in ways that undermine the enduring reality of Indigenous sovereignty.
Therefore, any rights and immigration intervention we demand, as well-meaning and urgent as it might be, should not reinforce Australia’s sovereignty over unceded First Nations territories.
That’s what happened in 1905 when two Māori sheep shearers travelling from so-called New Zealand appealed to their rights as British subjects so they could stay in so-called Australia — an appeal to rights not unlike my own more than a century later.
The two men had purchased tickets in Pōneke, Wellington. In one of the men’s accounts, the sales clerk offered an ominous warning: Australian customs had special rules for “natives”. The men would need to pass a language test and buy return tickets proving their intent to return to Aotearoa after a few months. But when the men arrived in Sydney, a customs officer immediately denied them entry. Customs listed the men for deportation, detained them in a stiflingly hot cell and sent them back to New Zealand on the next available ship.
Four years earlier, immediately following Australia’s federation as a Commonwealth nation, the new government enacted the White Australia policy. The policy was a set of laws and regulations prohibiting non-white migrants from entering Australia and facilitating the deportation of thousands of South Sea Islanders.
From its inception in the late 1800s, the White Australia policy was deeply aspirational. By prohibiting non-white migrants, the Australian government articulated its hopes for nationhood — Australia was to be an almost impossible place, a homogeneously white island looming on the imagined edge of the vast Pacific.
For early 1900s Australian policymakers, the Pacific and its peoples posed a threat to Australia’s future. That fear materialised in legislation, in the policing of First Nations and Pacific communities, and in deportations.
The two Māori men didn’t know about the policy when they purchased tickets to sail, but after their forced return to New Zealand, one of the men raised complaints with New Zealand officials. In an interview conducted at the time, he said: “We are British subjects, and I thought we were as good as anyone.”
News of the deportations offended Pākehā commentators, and New Zealand politicians sent probing telegrams to their counterparts in Australia. In the New Zealand settler imagination, Māori were “British subjects” on our way to total assimilation into the settler population.
“It is simply absurd,” one commentator wrote in the Wairarapa Daily Times, that “a couple of Maoris [sic], representing a fast dying race-fragment . . . should be forbidden”.
Less than a month later, the Australian premier intervened, promising outraged New Zealanders that this accident of deportation would not be repeated.
From March 1905 onwards, Māori were, as a matter of law, to be allowed into Australia in the same way as white New Zealanders. And until the 1970s, Maōri were the only predominantly non-white group to be exempted from Australia’s blanket ban on migrants of colour.
One of the perversions of settler colonialism is that the norms produced by settler nationhood — the material force of national borders, and the organisational power of nation-state laws — act like a frame on how we understand the past. Because settler governance persists in the present, we can imagine that the organisational dominance of settler statehood is somehow natural.
For instance, in the case of the two Māori sheep shearers, it feels historically unsurprising that the men understood First Nations territories as Australia. Who, in 1905, could have travelled by boat to Sydney and expected anything other than “Australia”?
As the New Zealand prime minister, Richard Seddon, promised his Australian counterparts in 1905, Māori were no threat to the white Australia policy. Our sovereignty was imagined as a faint haunting of the distant past.
From this position of imagined assimilation, Māori migrants received a legal entitlement to live in Australia, while in the same year, the Australian government deported thousands of South Sea Islanders. For Māori, it positioned us outside the white Australia policy’s definition of an “undesirable migrant”.
Critically, the exemption marked a turning point in Australian immigration policy, and in the structural relationships between Indigenous Pacific peoples — including First Nations peoples in Australia and Māori in New Zealand.
First, the material force of immigration bureaucracies disfigured First Nations territories. As other scholars have stressed, the fiction of Australian settler sovereignty has long relied on the Australian state’s ability to hold up a curtain over the realities of the land, framing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ homes as vacant sites for migrant futures.
Second, in the case of the two Māori sheep shearers, we see an example of how settler nation states ensnare Indigenous people by binding our identities to the nations that occupy our territories. In the early 20th century, both settler governments did this by locating Māori in relatively close proximity to “whiteness.” Whiteness here is not about colour but about British subjecthood.
Australia understood Māori as essentially white British subjects because New Zealand Pākehā colonists reported that Māori had been so effectively assimilated that we would soon be extinct. Colonisers imagined us as noble and war-loving, but not a serious existential concern to the settlers’ future.
The 1905 incident is a small example of how Australia and New Zealand, two white settler nations, collaborated to produce a mirage of settler national legitimacy in the place of Indigenous sovereignty. The incident also illustrates how settler governments determine who deserves a future in the colony, and who does not.
In the context of the Māori diaspora in Australia, we need to think critically about our historical and ongoing presence on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ homelands. This is not to undermine the centuries of relationships and solidarity between Māori and First Nations people, or to point an accusatory finger at Māori who migrate.
Instead, it’s a call to reflect on how the fictions of settler sovereignty shape our relationships to place. Australia is always trying to convince us that its nation-state project is the real thing, and that First Nations sovereignty is a relic. But, as Crystal McKinnon reminds us: “Settler sovereignty is unstable and in a constant state of becoming.” Indigenous sovereignty endures because it’s rooted in the foundational connection between people and land.
For many decades, Indigenous scholars have stressed the importance of decentring the nation as the object of analysis. We can, as both Alice Te Punga Somerville and Shino Konishi argue, contend with our expansive Indigenous worlds and relations without showing any interest in settler colonies and their expectations for our lives.
A turn to trans-Indigeneity can help us to think beyond a settler future and towards a resurgent Indigenous politics that doesn’t need colonial institutions, including settler nations.
“Trans-Indigeneity” broadly refers to two movements: the way being Indigenous moves and shifts with Pacific peoples as we move across oceanic space, and the way that our regional relationships defy colonial expectations, categories and imaginations.
As Chickasaw literary scholar Chadwick Allen explains it, the “trans-” is a call to decentre nations, borders and colonial boundaries so that we might read Indigenous texts in relation to each other, rather than in comparison to each other.
That is, the “trans-” in trans-Indigeneity is a refusal of the colonial notion that Indigenous peoples and texts are bound in place to the islands or lands where colonisers first “encountered” us.
If we see our Indigeneity as fixed-in-place to discrete islands, then we see ourselves in colonial terms. This doesn’t mean that my status as tangata whenua travels with me like a flag that I can plant in the lands of Sāmoa, or the Mariana Islands, or Niue, claiming the islands as home because I am of the ocean.
Instead, the “trans-” in trans-Indigeneity is about foregrounding the very specific ways that Indigeneity was, and remains, both mobile and created in specific contexts. Indigeneity has been, and can still be, forged through our relationships with each others’ histories, narratives, technologies and traditions.
Collaborations between Indigenous peoples are productive sites of meaning, both historically and into the future. We can produce new practices of kinship, knowledge-sharing, organising, resurgence and economy that forge pathways out of a world organised by the nation-state’s bureaucracies.
The turn to trans-Indigeneity can help us to think beyond settler futures and towards a resurgent Indigenous politics that doesn’t need colonial institutions. It helps us think about our Pacific Indigenous futures in relation with each other, instead of in comparison. Or, worse, in competition.
The problem with evoking the trans-Indigenous, at least at the moment, is the tendency to focus so heavily on the resurgent potentials of Indigeneity-in-movement that we risk minimising the enduring realities of Indigenous sovereignty on land.
I started this article with my own connections to the Pacific, and with Teresia Teaiwa’s enduring wisdom reminding us that the ocean is not a metaphor — the ocean is home. It returns us when we lose ourselves in the bindings of the nation state. It teaches us that our smallness is real, even when our connections are vast.
In the travel agent’s ideal Pacific, our islands are discrete floating nations to be visited and departed.
Teresia Teaiwa describes the Pacific as a site produced by historical movement rather than as a site defined by nations, but she also retains a crucial critique of how colonial desires, economic and otherwise, have produced havoc, loss and displacement for Indigenous peoples.
In her ideal Pacific, we navigate towards resurgent collaboration that honours the breadth of Indigeneity as it moves across time and space, as well as the Indigenous sovereignties that endure.
I can’t offer easy conclusions, but my experiences as a diasporic person and researcher have taught me about the harm of letting accountability slide. There is a tendency in the diaspora to inscribe our future aspirations on to other peoples’ lands in ways that replicate colonialism.
If we celebrate our movements and relationships but forget whose land we stand on, we celebrate our success but forget the routes, the connections, the dispossessions and the sovereignties that forged Pacific pasts and shape Pacific futures.
Engaging with the reality of another person’s sovereignty can mean forgoing some of the desires that we have for our future on their lands. But it also means the more expansive, resurgent and liberating possibility of collaborating towards futures that defy the settler nation’s constraints on our lives.
Sam Iti Prendergast (Ngāti Maniapoto) is a lecturer in history at Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato. She is focused on Indigenous sovereignty in and beyond Aotearoa New Zealand. Her current research explores historical and ongoing Māori critiques of colonial violence and visions for the future, with a focus on her own tūpuna. Sam has lived in Aotearoa, Australia, and the United States, and her experience as Māori in these settler nations continues to inform her work and teaching.
Made possible by New Zealand on Air through the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
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