Claire Sutherland

Decolonialising through the sea: Bringing indigeneity into a national legacy


This paper proposes to complement and extend the conference theme of indigenous connections to the land by exploring how indigenous narratives can be recentred theoretically and empirically from a seaborne perspective. The ‘Mayflower 400: Legend and Legacy’ exhibition at the Box in Plymouth, U.K., is an example of the decolonising of museum exhibits through indigenous co-creation. Specifically, it represents the encounter of the so-called ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ and the Wampanoag of present-day Massachusetts, and was created in partnership with the Wampanoag Advisory Committee. The exhibition also plays host to a contemporary Wampanoag artwork by Nosapocket/Ramona Peters. The paper will consider the extent to which the exhibition challenges and reframes dominant narratives of the Mayflower’s journey as a foundational myth of U.S. national identity by bringing to the fore Wampanoag connections to their indigenous land. It will also pay attention to a theoretical reframing of the Mayflower’s journey. Rather than forming a solid foundation to a national narrative, the paper asks whether the material fluidity and mutability of the sea itself could be used to conceptualise indigenous narratives and their resistance to all forms of colonial dominance. It will also seek to understand whether the process of exhibition curation and co-creation is in itself a fruitful means of recentring indigenous stories away from the margins and (post)colonial dominance. The paper asks what can be learned from this particular experience of international, cross-continental collaboration in contrast to more frequent examples of an indigenous ethnic minority collaborating within a national space, thereby contributing both to debates around indigenous museum representations and theoretical framings that go beyond the centre and the margin.


Claire Sutherland is a professor of politics at Northumbria University. She has a long-standing interest in nationalism and museum representations of the nation in selected Southeast Asian and European cases. Claire has published widely on aspects of nationalist ideology and its relationship with cosmopolitanism, citizenship and migration, among others. Claire’s current interests include theorising beyond the nation through a maritime lens, and looking at how structural racism and colonial legacies are interconnected with nationalism.

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