Return to Uluru, Mark McKenna, Black Inc.
Mark McKenna’s new book Return to Uluru is an example of truth-telling regarding the particulars of our history. The book, besides being a surprisingly handsome hardcover edition, draws you in by starting with an overview of the continent, talking about the vast, almost waterless centre that so bedevilled European explorers (but which, McKenna notes, some explorers arrogantly thought they could claim in a James Cook-like act of flag-planting), then concentrates on one (forgotten) instance of white crime against Aboriginal people. (In this way it’s a little bit like Ted Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend in that it mixes observations of beautiful countryside and Aboriginal legend with remembering a tragic death.)
In the 1930s Bill McKinnon, remembered in white society as a pioneering, no-nonsense bush policeman and ‘protector’ of Aborigines in Alice Springs, shot and killed an unarmed Aboriginal murder suspect in one of the caves at Uluru. At the subsequent trial, there were issues raised over McKinnon’s violent treatment of prisoners and an enquiry was called by Canberra, though McKinnon was let off. While McKenna tells this true-crime story he raises wider issues – the level of understanding (or not) of British and Australian law by Aboriginal people, the disparity between the harsh treatment of Aboriginal people and the leniency or even immunity given to whites, the imposition of an outsider, white cultural and legal view on the country’s original inhabitants, the cover-up and historical amnesia, or simply indifference, and the way white settlers have claimed the countryside, including sites such as Uluru, as if it had been virgin territory.
McKenna writes about the ‘closing’ of Uluru – the recent restriction on climbers, in the light of the inequalities in central Australia, and without analysing it much, he manages to show what the rush to climb the rock before people weren’t allowed to says about lingering attitudes to Aboriginal land ownership, about an irreverence, almost a nastiness, on the part of some of us who remain sceptical about issues that concern Aboriginal people – the darker side of a national reluctance to think about deeper things, and a recurring sense that the land must be claimed in some physical way for it to mean something, that it must be not just appreciated but conquered, scaled, by hiking boot or four-wheel drive.
The issues McKenna raises are difficult. Reputations are injured, Australian mythology is questioned. But the book’s story is also an example of how the past can be revisited, the truth patiently drawn-out and reconciliation begun.