The Book Group and Mark McKenna Return to Uluru

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (Black Inc 2021)

This was a very welcome birthday gift in March this year, but somehow I didn’t get around to reading it until it became the September title for the Book Group.

Before the meeting: It’s a terrific, powerful, history that reads partly as a thriller and partly as a prose poem.

Mark McKenna has previously written two books that focus on the history of particular places: Looking for Blackfellas’ Point (2002) and From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories (2016). His recent Quarterly Essay, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s future (2018) takes its readers on a visit to Cook’s landing place at Kurnell. Return to Uluru similarly has a place for its main subject. It tells many stories about Uluru: stories from settler Australia that change radically over the decades, stories from Aṉangu culture and from First Nations people more generally, culminating in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

The central strand is a compelling narrative, what McKenna calls the ‘biography of one moment in one man’s life, a moment that 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’ (page 25).

The man in question is Bill McKinnon, a legendary Territorian policeman, who travelled in the steps of the explorers in the 1930s, taking camels on long journeys through what non-Indigenous Australians saw as the harsh and inhospitable terrain of central Australia, climbing what was then called Ayer’s Rock and adding to the cairn at its highest point, dealing with hostile ‘Blacks’ and doing the heroic work of bringing murderers to justice in the face of enormous odds. He was celebrated in newspaper articles and by writers like Frank Clune. A representative of an heroic Aussie type, a Crocodile Dundee without the comedy, he was also accused of brutal mistreatment of Aboriginal people, and in particular of the unlawful killing of one prisoner.

That killing is the moment that the book revolves around. It happened in a cave near Kapi Mutitjulu, a waterhole at the southern end of Uluru. McKinnon claimed that he fired blind into the cave where an escaped prisoner was hiding, and that he did so in self defence. An official enquiry found that he had done no wrong, but Aṉangu witnesses – and some non-Indigenous people – said different, and in the course of writing this book McKenna stumbled on some damning evidence written in McKinnon’s own hand. The image of the legendary outback bushman evaporates in front of our eyes to be replaced by something much darker. Deeply gruesome details emerge.

There is a story that is left mainly untold: the story of the man shot by McKinnon, whose name was Yokununna. In whitefella versions of the story he was a murderer who was captured by McKinnon, escaped, and was killed while resisting recapture. The murder of which he was accused, we are told, was a matter of tribal law. In an endnote, McKenna explains that he has ‘refrained from reproducing these details due to their ongoing cultural sensitivity’, but we are left in no doubt that Yokununna was no criminal, and that when he died he was drawing McKinnon’s attention away from his fellow escapees. The book ends with some of his remains being returned to this descendants.

My copy is a hardback, and its many photos are reproduced with wonderful clarity. These photos, beautiful though they are, serve as more than decoration. Among photographs from other sources, including the view of Uluru from the International Space Station on the cover, are many taken by Bill McKinnon, and others by the book’s author. So there’s a pictorial dialogue that spans the decades. We get a sense of how McKinnon saw himself. We feel the romance of the centre (in 1932, McKinnon commissioned a dozen mulga wood plaques from Albert Namatjira, making him one of the first whitefellas to encourage, and pay, Namatjira fo an artwork). And we see the descendants of the men brutalised by McKinnon, now back on country. We see Uluru’s senior custodian, grandson of one of the men arrested along with Yokununna, pointing to the opening in the rock that McKinnon fired through.

At the meeting: I had expected this to be one of those meetings where we are united in appreciation of the book and spend the time reminding each other of bits we made special note of. But it was much more interesting than that.

For some, the central idea of the book – that the killing in the cave could be taken as telling the tale of central Australia in miniature – just didn’t hold up, and the telling of it was irksomely longwinded and repetitive. They would have preferred more about people who made cameo appearances, such as Ted Strehlow, Charles Mountford and Olive Pink, and perhaps more about early non-Indigenous encounters with Uluru in the 19th century.

The descriptions of Uluru and the surrounding countryside, some felt, was uninspired. At times, the reader was expected to share assumptions and accept generalisations that some of us just didn’t accept or share – for example, at one stage ‘the Commonwealth was deeply embarrassed’ by McKinnon’s behaviour, but we aren’t told who ‘the Commonwealth’ was or what the evidence was for their emotional state. (This didn’t bother me, partly because I gave a lot of weight to McKenna’s brief account of the Coniston massacre and subsequent exoneration of the perpetrators, so understood that Canberra administrators of the Northern Territory didn’t want further bad publicity.)

One man said he read the book as a foreword and three short stories, which he enjoyed. The aim, as he saw it, was to write a whitefella myth of Uluru, and while he felt the appeal of that (we’re all whitefellas in our group), he was uneasy – I think I heard this right – that there may be some coopting of Aṉangu culture.

Those of us who had got that far all agreed in being moved and impressed by the passages where McKenna meets with the families of McKinnon and Yokununna. At least one man found the most powerful moment in the book to be when McKenna tells McKinnon’s grandson what he has discovered and says he understands the distress this may cause to the family if he publishes it. The grandson, for whom McKinnon has been a family hero, gives his blessing: ‘All of the family, Mum included, are on board for reconciliation, we wouldn’t want anything else.’ Even those who felt that the ‘reconciliation’ offered by the book is largely illusory (I’m not one of them) were moved by this. The passages where Yokununna’s skull is returned to his family and they have their version of events vindicated are equally powerful.

In an inspired moment this month’s Book Selector had invited us all to bring our own photos of Uluru, so the evening ended with a bit of show and tell. The images ranged from a picture of someone’s friend at the top of Uluru in the early 1980s, a photo very like one of McKinnon’s fro the same time, to a photo, also from the 1980s, of the photographer’s family posing cheerfully in a burnt out landscape with a number of old Aṉangu women holding up prize goannas.

3 responses to “The Book Group and Mark McKenna Return to Uluru

  1. As always Jonathan – an excellent summation. Mark McKenna and Thomas Mayor (a book about the Uluru Statement from the Heart) were recently interviewed together – I think it was part of the Ballarat Writers Festival – ABC Radio…and also excellent. I remember when I read the book – moved beyond measure by the beauty of the writing and by the stories woven around Uluru. The image on the cover was one I saw on a flight across central Australia en route via Singapore or KL back to Japan (the cheap way – change flights midway) – someone further up on the left side of the plane was peering through their window (and because I was alone – otherwise my wife always claims the window before often/usually falling asleep) I, too, peered out – and there it was in unusual configuration – not the usual shape seen from ground level – but this other interesting top-down vision. It was electric – almost hairs on the back of head stand-up territory. Reading Mark’s book sent me straight to writing to him. It was at the time I had just read Ted Egan’s Master’s thesis (c1995) of the murder of some protocol defying Japanese trepangers in the early 1930s on the eastern edge of Arnhem Land, another murder of a policeman mate of McKinnon – and more follow-up injustices. Coming after the recent release of the brilliant film High Country – set in the post-Great War to edge of 1930s era – referencing aspects of true massacre history and interaction – though the film an amalgam of stories – based on lots of truths one might say – these were stories informing each other. You got it right, Jonathan – and though you might (now) wish to defend some of your book club mates and plead it might be in the way you have described their reactions – I was nevertheless dismayed. I have a former student from Homebush Boys of whom I am rather proud. He sees clearly the negatives of his own ethnic Chinese community treatment by the dominant Malay bumiputra system in Malaysia – but presumes to know about ‘the Aboriginals” in Australia – natural selection kinds of dismissal. Which I find shocking as who wouldn’t in 2021. He counts as mates Abbott and Morrison – well, at least, he’s met them – in his political circle. Morrison he told me was popular amongst most Australians – he underlined that. I must be easily shocked but to imagine such a thing to be true was like being slugged by a heavy-weight boxer. Surely not! I have suggested to my old student that he might like to follow up on any of the aspects I listed – dispossession, massacre, missions, stolen generations, land rights, deaths-in-custody – and get back to me… Hmm! All that Jonatthan – out of your review! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting review, and comment as well, Jim!
    I like the way you share these alternative perspectives, it helps to fill out my ideas about ‘popular opinion’ because it shows that there’s always nuance…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read your discussion of the book Jonathan, as I have this on my TBR and would really like to read it, but I did read your discussion of your discussion. I loved your opening “I had expected this to be one of those meetings where we are united in appreciation of the book and spend the time reminding each other of bits we made special note of. But it was much more interesting than that”. I had that happen a few times in my reading group. Sometimes it was much more interesting but one occasion, I was completely blindsided when no-one like the book except me, though some felt it was clever. It was Claire G Coleman’s Terra Nullius. That was interesting to a point but for me the reasons given didn’t always make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

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