‘Return to Uluru’ by Mark McKenna

2021, 214p

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are respectfully advised that this publication contains names and images of deceased persons and culturally sensitive information.

Wow. It is June, but I predict now that this will be the best book I read all year.

In 1934, when the events in this book took place, white Australians didn’t speak of Uluru. Instead it was Ayers Rock, and few people ever saw it. Since then, it has loomed large in the Australian imagination: Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain, that Qantas advertisement “still calling Australia home” filmed on top of it, the controversy over the closure of the walk, and most recently the Uluru Statement from the Heart (which we seem content to praise for its lyricism while the government and conservative media sidle away from its content). Uluru is seen as the ‘heart’ of the Australian desert and an immediately recognizable image.

But it has a darker history, that McKenna explores in this book. In 1934, Anangu man Yokununna was shot in a cave nestling within Uluru by Northern Territory policeman Bill McKinnon. McKinnon was lauded by those purveyors of the image of the Wild Outback – think Frank Clunes, think Northern Territory politicians – as a ‘man’s man’ from the days when ‘the blacks’ needed a strong hand.

A Board of Enquiry was set up into the shooting. It had an interesting composition. It was headed by John Cleland, Professor of Pathology and the University of Adelaide; Vin White, recently appointed Assistant Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory; John Sexton, Baptist preacher and secretary of the South Australian Aborigines’ Friends’ Association, Charles Mountford, amateur anthropologist, and Ted Strehlow, the young linguist (p.84). Amazingly, this Board of Enquiry actually travelled to ‘Ayers Rock’ and the site of the shooting, an arduous journey by jeep and camel over sandhills, staying at camps and stations along the way. Even more amazingly, along with his aboriginal tracker, McKinnon himself accompanied them as accused, cook and guide. By the campfire at night, he would regale them with his stories of the outback by camel. At the rock, he exhumed Yokununna’s body and packed it for return to Adelaide, a process that appalled Strehlow, and shaped his views of British justice for the rest of his life (p.96). The Board of Enquiry came to its decision. It was the 1930s: I think that you know the result, although it was more nuanced than you might think.

The story of the shooting and Bill McKinnon takes up a large chunk of this book, with the ‘Lawman’ section taking up 90 pages. Here McKenna tells McKinnon’s story, painting for us the picture of a hard-bitten, laconic, tough policeman not opposed to roughing-up the men he arrested, punctilious in his record keeping, and a keen photographer. It is followed by another weighty section ‘Uluru’ which is 60 pages in length. Here McKenna himself steps into the picture, an academic historian, alternately drawn to and repelled by McKinnon’s ‘type’. I sometimes bridle at the historian-as-detective trope that is used to pump up the narrative in order to make a history more ‘saleable’, but here it is absolutely justified. Coming to a case some 80 years later, and in a world where the politics of indigenous history are changing but still contested, McKenna tracks down some interesting leads and sources, some of which make him reflect on the sheer, remorseless plunder of indigenous country, others which challenge the ethics of doing history. I think that it says something about the power of this book that I don’t want to tell you about the twists and turns his research takes- I want you to read the book yourself.

In a way, the murders in this book feel a long way away. They seem encapsulated by the shorts and pith helmet that McKinnon adopted, and the racist “dying pillow” tropes of the past. Then you see a video of one of the witnesses on YouTube and you realize that this is not so far away.

This is a beautifully written, and beautifully presented book. I didn’t expect a page-turner, but I found one. Nor did I expect to find so many photographs, some taken by McKinnon, others taken by McKenna himself and so many beautifully produced maps. In his afterword, McKenna explains that in embarking on the book, he intended to write a companion book to his earlier From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories. That 2016 book explored four places on the littoral edge of the continent, that also hovered on the edge of Australia’s historical consciousness at the time. With this book, he moved from the edge into the heart of the country- until McKinnon’s story ‘hijacked’ his intention. He promises a third book, more personal in focus, about places he has lived in Australia and overseas, encapsulating his research and thinking over the last decade (p.215). I suspect that it will be worth waiting for. In the meantime, this book should win the Prime Ministers Prize for Australian History. I won’t hold my breath for that one.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

10 responses to “‘Return to Uluru’ by Mark McKenna

  1. Hi Janine… you know how my Indigenous Literature Reading List (which is all Indigenous authored) also includes a section at the bottom called Further Reading…Is this (i.e. your review) one to add to my “Essential readings in history”?

  2. Done!
    (Other reading is right down at the bottom of the page. which I am delighted to say is getting unwieldy because there are so many reviews!)

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