April 2021

Arts & Letters

The death of Yokununna: ‘Return to Uluru’

By Frank Bongiorno
Mark McKenna explores Australia’s history of violence, dispossession and deception through one tragic incident

In 1933, the geologist and explorer Cecil Madigan tried to identify the “centre” of Australia. It was a question that had long exercised explorers of the outback, but still lacked a definitive answer. Madigan sought to solve the riddle using a map of Australia cut from sheet metal, and a plumb bob. His conclusion was that the centre was about “257 miles south of Central Mount Stuart”. A more technologically sophisticated effort in 1988 found that Madigan’s estimate was not far out – just 11 kilometres.

As Mark McKenna demonstrates in his new book, Return to Uluru, these efforts have been part of a long-running obsession among white Australians to possess, physically, imaginatively and intellectually, the nation’s “Red Centre” and “Dead Heart”. Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock, has been central to such thinking, and McKenna is surely correct in suggesting that it, and not Canberra, has become “the spiritual centre of the Commonwealth”.

McKenna’s is not a conventional history of how Uluru shifted from the margins to the centre of national consciousness. Rather, his focus is on one story from the mid 1930s, which works in this beautifully crafted book as a vivid microhistory. In telling the story of the killing of Anangu man Yokununna near Uluru in 1934, McKenna is able to explore the much larger history of the violence, dispossession and deception in the settler occupation of Australia.

The basic outline of Yokununna’s death has been told before, but McKenna has not only discovered new sources, he contextualises the story in new ways. On the white settler side, the central figure is one constable William McKinnon. This deeply unattractive figure might well have stepped out of an H. Rider Haggard novel. McKinnon had worked various jobs – wireless operator, mounted policeman, merchant seaman, prison warder and, directly before his Central Australian career, as a policeman in Rabaul, New Britain (part of Papua New Guinea today). It comes as no surprise that he briefly crossed paths with Errol Flynn amid this adventurous life.

McKinnon was one of those “characters” – a man’s man – who, then as now, tend to do rather well in Australia. When he retired in 1962, station owners praised him as a “sterling friend” who “played the game over the years, and … carried out his duties with justice and tact”. Put more simply and brutally, McKinnon did a great deal of valuable dirty work for the nervous white population of Central Australia. And he was a sufficiently clever liar to get away with a career notable for its racism and violence, at a time when most of white Australia was eager to believe lies about life on its frontiers.

In particular, McKinnon was a skilled purveyor of the terror that whites believed was necessary to keep Aboriginal people in check. He was not recalled with affection by those Indigenous people who encountered him, or their descendants. As late as 1984, when one Aboriginal elder got wind that the elderly McKinnon – by then retired in Queensland – would be returning for a “Back to Ayers Rock” reunion for old-timers before the handback occurred, he went missing for three months so as to avoid crossing paths.

McKenna’s story explains why McKinnon would evoke such a reaction. In the incident that would attract national attention to him, McKinnon and two Aboriginal trackers, Carbine and Paddy, travelled in pursuit of those responsible for the killing of Aboriginal station hand Kai-Umen. He had been executed for breaking tribal law, and the men who had done the deed claimed to have been acting under orders from elders. McKinnon arrested six men for the murder, but they escaped. While the pursuers recaptured two of them, the others remained at large, although one of them – Yokununna – was wounded. Following the trail of blood, McKinnon and the trackers eventually found him in a cave near Uluru.

What happened next would be disputed. McKinnon claimed that he fired a shot at Yokununna’s feet, and that the Aboriginal man responded by throwing a number of stones at him, crippling his hand. McKinnon explained that he had then fired at Yokununna without taking aim. It was soon clear that the Aboriginal man was badly injured and, having been removed from the cave by McKinnon and his assistants, he died a few hours later. The pursuit of the three remaining men was abandoned.

There are quite different Anangu tellings of this story. In one version, Yokununna is a heroic figure who diverts attention from his three companions, sparing them from McKinnon and the trackers. The captors kill Yokununna by shooting him in the head when he refuses to disclose the others’ whereabouts.

McKenna’s painstaking research – which takes him to the former constable’s papers in the garage of his daughter’s home in Queensland, as well as to the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s remains were sent – allows him to test both of these accounts. Suffice to say that the Aboriginal accounts, if not accurate in their full detail, still capture something of the essential truth of the episode, which points to McKinnon’s culpability.

The incident is well documented, not least because it was the subject of a federal inquiry. Territorians of this period complained loud and often of the tenderness of bleeding heart southerners when regarding the treatment of Aboriginal people up north. The Coniston massacre of 1928, which involved police and pastoralists purportedly revenge-killing between 70 and 150 Aboriginal people, led to an inquiry and a whitewash. This time, the government was more serious. There was national and international pressure to do better, and the Lyons government appointed University of Adelaide pathology professor John Cleland as inquiry chairman, alongside Vin White, the assistant chief protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, and John Sexton, a Baptist preacher and secretary of the South Australian Aborigines’ Friends’ Association. Charles Mountford, an amateur anthropologist, and Ted Strehlow, an expert in Aboriginal languages, were to assist.

The inquiry was truly bizarre, with its members accompanied in their arduous journeying through Central Australia by none other than McKinnon, who acted as their cook. It is hard to believe he did not take every opportunity to influence their findings. In any case, Cleland appears to have decided at an early stage in proceedings that McKinnon would not lose his job over the matter. The inquiry had an each-way bet, judging the killing was “legally justified”, but “not warranted”. Cleland closed the circle by arranging for Yokununna’s body to go to Adelaide for academic investigation. He had limited interest in justice, and much in body-snatching for science – a common enough colonial pattern.

It is clear enough, however, that the committee was divided, an indication of shifting attitudes to frontier brutality. Sexton correctly believed McKinnon a liar when it suited his interests, and thought that Aboriginal people were held in such a state of fear by the whites that they could not give truthful evidence concerning the police. Strehlow and Mountford were enchanted by Uluru and its surrounds, but rather less so by the deficiencies in McKinnon’s honesty and Cleland’s impartiality.

McKenna weaves around this story a wider history of Uluru as the home of the Anangu. It is country they left in the face of the kind of coercion and violence perpetrated by McKinnon, but also to which they returned from the early 1950s, just as tourism began to take off. McKenna reveals the demeaning treatment of these Aboriginal people by many visitors – the tourist companies themselves wanted the authorities to move them away entirely – as well as the efforts of the Anangu to make a living as their sacred sites were overrun by white Australians seeking an outback adventure.

This is a story of survival on the part of the Anangu, and of transformation for white Australia. Descendants of Yokununna, having reclaimed their country, now manage Uluru. White Australians who once climbed the rock for adventure tourism, and displayed little appreciation of what it means to its Indigenous owners, are now likely to visit Uluru – since October 2019 off limits to climbers – in search of spiritual experience and cultural understanding. It is hard not to wonder what Bill McKinnon would have made of the “soul therapy” sessions now on offer, along with “energetic healing”, “chant and contemplation” and “cosmic consciousness”. But more seriously, tourists are now more likely to feel they have something to learn from the Anangu owners.

Uluru’s ascendancy as a national symbol now seems unassailable. It was perfectly natural that when Indigenous people from all around Australia assembled for the National Constitutional Convention, in May 2017, they should do so at Uluru. And that their statement calling for a constitutionally enshrined “First Nations Voice”, a Makarrata Commission and truth-telling should be called the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Its words – surrounded by a painting by Mutitjulu artists, of Uluru’s main creation stories – are the most eloquent and poetic of any Australian public statement or document this century. And they are as resonant of the place from which they came as they are of the diverse Indigenous histories and aspirations that they express.

It is hard to like Bill McKinnon. He paid no price for his brutality; for God’s sake, the man even won £6000 in a lottery in 1957. And there he was, in retirement in the mid 1970s, addressing a meeting of the Queensland Young Nationals, and railing against striking schoolteachers. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect adornment of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland.

But McKenna warns against trying to heap responsibility for the events of 1934 on the shoulders of one man. McKinnon was the loyal servant of a system that violently dispossessed Aboriginal people for the benefit of the invaders. His character and actions might be repulsive to most of us today, but at heart this is the story of how white people took possession of a continent that belonged to others, and of how Indigenous people suffered at their hands but resisted and survived.

As McKenna explains in a lovely borrowing from Paul Keating’s 1993 eulogy to the Unknown Soldier, “He was none of us and all of us.” One of McKenna’s gifts as a historian has been his ability to help us to see in the local and the particular some of the grandest of themes in Australian history, as well as the dilemmas that we are yet to resolve. Return to Uluru does this with exquisite skill and powerful insight.

Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is Professor and Head of the School of History at the Australian National University.

Ted Strehlow and Charles Mountford, 1935. Charles Mountford, State Library of SA, PRG 1218/34/80Library of SA, PRG 1218/34/80

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