Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.
Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.
But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:
What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.
McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.
Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.
“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.
Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:
Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.
It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.
In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!
Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.
For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019