Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

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.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
ISBN: 9781760642556

13 thoughts on “Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

  1. You’ve summarised this key book/story/understanding very well WG. It complements the Uluru Statement from the Heart (Truth, Treaty, Voice)! I looked down from a plane once flying at 10,000metres en route to either Singapore or to KL – and there below – the shape of Uluru as seen from immediately above – as on the cover of Mark McKenna’s book!

    • Thanks Jim. Yes it does do that well. I had mentioned the Statement in my post, but it felt forced where I put it so, even though McKenna mentions it, I removed it. I was lying in bed last night thinking I should have worked out where to include it!

  2. Thanks for commenting on which format works best for this particular book. In many cases, I’m assuming it’s all the same, but then I listen to an audiobook that had interesting formatting that made a difference, or I read a paperback book and discover the e-book version had hyerplinks, etc.

    I read this review with a lot of curiosity because from what I’ve read recently, there is a move to cal Uluru by its correct name, even though it was Ayers Rock in the past. Things like that. It’s becoming more than just a tourist attraction in my mind.

    • You are right Melanie, but the move to rename is long done now. In 1993, it was renamed Ayers Rock / Uluru, and that was reversed in 2002 to Uluru / Ayers Rock. For most Aussies now it is just Uluru. It is way more than a tourist attraction, you are right. It is symbolic of much of what we are and could be, it is a place of cultural learning that can then spread out, and of course it is spiritual country to be respected and cared for – as well as a beautiful, awe-inspiring sight (and site)!

      My first experience of format making a difference was with my first e-Book. We were going to Japan and I thought that rather than lugging around those travel guides, as you did before internet travel inf became so well organised, I would by a Kindle and an e-travel guide. (This was a couple of years before tablets appeared). Well, it was good for my novel reading, but for travel guide it was pretty hopeless. The text was fine but the images and maps were hopeless. They were a sort of muted black and white and you couldn’t expand the image. I still had to pick up town maps etc. I learnt a big lesson then that there was more to this “e” or print decision that I thought. Of course e-books and e-book readers have come a long way but clearly not far enough!

  3. Important things first – I haven’t been there. I would like to, but I don’t like being a tourist and I think I would be nervous about taking that particular short cut from Kalgoorlie to Alice Springs.

    I appreciate what you say about “the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history”, but still I think I’d prefer an Indigenous account.

    On the other hand we (whites) are still a long way from acknowledging all the wrongs we have done in taking over Indigenous lands and maybe this is part of the process.

    • I like your third paragraph Bill, because you know my view. This history is about Indigenous people and a white man. Why shouldn’t a white man also tell the story?

      We DO need more of these stories ALSO told by Indigenous POVs, of course. It’s happening. There are more Indigenous historians, and more Indigenous writers telling stories their way, than there used to be.

      BTW Also regarding your third paragraph. Towards the end of the book, McKenna talks to McKinnon’s grandson about some of us negative findings, and the grandson does not ask him to hide it. Instead he says, that the family is all for “reconciliation” (even though they were proud of their dad/grandfather). As McKenna says, McKinnon was not alone in what he did. He was part of a much bigger ideology, as we all know, and was one who bought into it rather than question int. What I don’t share in my review – just because there was so much to discuss – is that we do get some more sympathetic contributions from some of McKinnon’s peers, like TG Strehlow and Charles Mountford.)

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