The colonial history of New Caledonia has been one of dispossession, alienation, and racial segregation. Indigenous people did not experience a life of all-embracing confinement and immobility. Instead, Kanak localities were historically shaped by the interplay of colonial projects, ideas, tensions, power relations, practices, representations, values, norms, and emotions. Based on the example of Thio, located on the south-east coast of New Caledonia, this article explores these transformations, focusing on processes of localization and mobility in the colonial and postcolonial eras. The first section focuses on the encounter with and the interplay between different organisations in Thio: the missionary, mining, pastoral, and administrative frontiers. The second section explores the multilayered history of the landscape and settlement patterns in Xârâgwii/Kouare (a tribe located in the mountainous part of Thio), and the third section analyses the interplay of locality and mobility since World War II. The final section examines the ‘invention’ of the tribe as part of colonial governmental projects. The article concludes with a brief discussion of the meaning of this evolving dialectic in the current context of decolonization.