His name was Yukun.
On October 13, more than 100 people gathered at the foot of Uluru, close to Mutitjulu Waterhole, on the sacred ground of Anangu, the Aboriginal custodians of the surrounding desert Country. Encircled by desert bloodwoods and river red gums, mourners lined the red-dirt track that led from the car park, while Yukun’s relatives sat under a small marquee that had been erected next to his grave.
The morning was cold and wet. Above us, the rock – a towering mass of purplish-red – was streaked with traces of water that streamed in rivulets down its side. As Lutheran pastor Malcolm Willcocks donned his surplice and crucifix in preparation for the service, Aboriginal children scampered up the rock, playing only metres from the cave where Yukun, in 1934, was killed by Constable Bill McKinnon and buried near the waterhole. Now, on the 88th anniversary of his death, he was finally returning into the arms of his family and Country.
The voices of Yukun’s family – a slow, lilting hymn sung in Pitjantjatjara – ushered in the procession led by Professor John Carty, head of humanities at the South Australian Museum, and Richard Logan, dean and head of the University of Adelaide’s dental school. Carty – no stranger to ceremonies like this – carried a small wooden casket wrapped in the Aboriginal flag and tied with a white ribbon. Despite months of searching, all that could be found of Yukun’s remains was his skull, with his name – “Yockanunna” [sic] – etched on its surface in capital letters by an unknown hand.
Sammy Wilson, one of Uluru’s senior custodians and the grandson of Paddy Uluru, who narrowly escaped McKinnon’s clutches at Uluru in 1934, stood directly opposite me. As Carty passed between us with the casket in his arms, Sammy’s distress was palpable. Family members wept as Abraham Poulson, Yukun’s great-nephew, or grandson as his family sometimes prefers, received the casket and placed it on a small table positioned in front of a narrow grave. Slowly, a queue formed and, one after the other, we walked to the table and placed our hands on the casket.
Pastor Willcocks raised his arms to the sky and said a few words of welcome. Then Richard Logan stepped forward to speak. After each sentence, he paused, so that his words could be translated into Pitjantjatjara by Tapaya Edwards.
“I’m here today to say sorry and to learn,” Logan said. “Universities are places of teaching and learning, and there is much to learn from Yukun’s story … We can learn how attitudes towards Aboriginal people at the time led to his remains being dug up and taken away from his Country. We can learn how the systems that dehumanised him, and Aboriginal people in general, meant his remains were kept in an institution not as a man but as a scientific specimen; this is a shameful story … Dr John Cleland [head of the 1935 Commonwealth board of inquiry into Yukun’s death] removed his remains from his burial site in 1935 and took them to Adelaide – we don’t know why he did this. Yukun’s remains were at the university until they were relocated to the South Australian Museum keeping place for safekeeping and repatriation … in 2017 … We not only regret the past practices, we also regret not engaging candidly with this history until now … On behalf of the university, I say sorry to Yukun’s family and to all the families affected by these historical attitudes and practices.”
As the service began in earnest, Willcocks moved in and out of English and Pitjantjatjara, effortlessly merging Christian and Anangu traditions, a process that began in 1877, when Lutheran missionaries established the Hermannsburg Mission. He implored “Mamma God” to receive “this one”, and recited the Our Father in Pitjantjatjara, joined solemnly by many in the crowd. A small group of women from the renowned Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir sang some Lutheran hymns. Next year, Abraham Poulson will possibly become a pastor in his Lutheran church at Areyonga (Utju), 220 kilometres west of Alice Springs, the community where he and many of Yukun’s descendants live today.
During the ceremony, a succession of family members stood behind Yukun’s grave, speaking in turn of their shock and sorrow. While they’d only recently learnt that his remains had been stolen in 1935, they had long known that McKinnon had chased Yukun to Uluru along with five other Aboriginal men he’d arrested for the murder of an Aboriginal station hand at Mount Conner. Although McKinnon managed to re-arrest two of the men, three others eluded him – Joseph Donald, Paddy Uluru and Toby Naninga. Only Yukun, already badly wounded by McKinnon’s tracker, was cornered in the cave at Mutitjulu Waterhole. Anangu believe that McKinnon had shot him in “cold blood”. The story had been handed down from one generation to the next. It explained why Anangu had stayed away from Uluru until the 1950s, when Paddy Uluru and his sons Reggie and Cassidy returned to discover their sacred sites desecrated by tourists. McKinnon’s shooting of Yukun, already a foundational parable of injustice and violent expulsion in the wake of invasion, formed a key part of the case for the handback of Uluru to Anangu in 1985.
Addressing the crowd, several family members thanked the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum for bringing Yukun home. In light of what had happened, the family’s generosity seemed astonishing. I thought of stories from the earliest days of colonisation, when Aboriginal guides, oblivious to the intentions of the invaders, proudly showed British explorers their Country. Despite everything that Aboriginal people have experienced since, this unfathomable generosity of spirit survives, underwriting the Uluru Statement from the Heart, with its invitation to Australians to “walk with” Aboriginal people towards “a better future”.
As the service concluded, we filed by for the last time, each dropping a handful of soil into Yukun’s grave before Abraham Poulson’s brother, Wilbur, jumped into the pit and held up his hands to receive his ancestor’s remains.
Before I turned to leave, Margaret Poulson, Abraham’s mother, approached me and asked whether any of the McKinnon family were present. When I pointed out Bill McKinnon’s great-nephews, Ross and Alistair, and Alistair’s wife, Ruth, all of whom had travelled from Victoria for the ceremony, she walked over to greet them, together with her niece, Joy Kunia. After exchanging a few words, they embraced. Before long, a steady procession of Yukun’s relatives waited patiently to do the same and thank them for coming. Unlike many other aspects of the ceremony, this meeting of the two families was completely spontaneous. As Alistair explained, “We didn’t expect to be welcomed like we were. It was quite overwhelming and such a genuine demonstration of their willingness to accept our presence, in the spirit of reconciliation.”
Later, I asked him if he could remember any of the things that had been said to him. “Yes! A woman came up to me and said, ‘Palya [a Pitjantjatjara greeting]. Your grandfather shot my grandfather.’”
In my recent book Return to Uluru, I tell the story of those two “grandfathers”. It describes what happened at the rock in 1934, how Constable Bill McKinnon – a man whose life and family have since become enmeshed with my own – told the Commonwealth board of inquiry investigating his actions that he had fired into the cave “without taking aim”. After Yukun threw a stone that hit McKinnon’s hand, he claimed that he had no alternative but to fire his pistol. Astoundingly, he insisted that he was acting in “self-defence”. After much deliberation, the board came to the conflicted conclusion that McKinnon’s shooting of Yukun was “legally justified” but “unwarranted”. Although McKinnon was found guilty of “thrashing two natives” at Hermannsburg – for which he was punished by having to wait 12 months for his annual salary increment – he was exonerated.
While the composition of the board was clearly intended to be more impartial than the inquiry that whitewashed the Coniston massacre of 1928 – as well as John Cleland, professor of pathology at the University of Adelaide, it included anthropologists T.G.H. Strehlow and Charles Mountford, and the Baptist clergyman John Sexton – it was severely compromised from the outset. Its guide and cook during the journey to Uluru to conduct its investigations was none other than Bill McKinnon, the very man whose actions the board was investigating. It was difficult to see how the board would find the man who provided their daily bread guilty of murdering Yukun.
In the course of his investigations at Uluru, in June 1935, Cleland exhumed Yukun’s body. Strehlow recorded the moment: “[I] saw the scene of the final tragedy today. I was greatly shocked at the way in which poor [Yukun] met his death – a poor hunted creature, shot callously at least twice in the cave, without being able either to defend his life or to escape. And now he is being taken back – his bones and head wrapped up in a calico parcel; his vitals, lungs, blood, entrails, liquefying flesh in a large billycan. And that is permitted by our white man’s civilisation.”
Although Strehlow writes that Yukun’s remains were being “taken back”, it’s unlikely that he knew then that Cleland intended to take them to Adelaide. Rather, he was referring to the fact that they would return to Alice Springs – where the board would hold its final sitting – along with the other evidence that had been collected during the course of the inquiry. Months later, when Cleland completed his report, he made no mention of having taken Yukun’s remains with him to Adelaide. It was only when I came across a throwaway remark McKinnon made late in his life that I knew for certain what Cleland had done. “The remains of Yokununna [sic],” he stated with characteristic bluntness, “[were] removed for conveyance to Adelaide Museum where I understand they are still down in the basement.” It was then that I emailed both the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum, asking whether there was any record of Yukun’s remains residing in their collections.
In 2019, still researching Return to Uluru, I managed to track down McKinnon’s only child, who was living in Brisbane. She was extremely generous, and told me that there were some “things” of her father’s stored in her garage and that I was welcome to go through them. What happened from then on would make Return to Uluru like no other book I’d written.
In an old trunk stored in the corner of the garage, I found every journal Bill McKinnon had kept from the moment he joined the Northern Territory police in the early 1930s. In the logbook he’d used the morning after he shot Yukun at Uluru, he described in clinical detail the last moments of Yukun’s life. There, in his own hand, were the words “I fired to hit.” McKinnon had lied to the Commonwealth board of inquiry.
In early 2020, on my second visit to Brisbane, sitting in his daughter’s living room as I combed through McKinnon’s extensive collection of photographs, I had a missed call on my phone. I noticed it was an Adelaide number. When I called back, Anna Russo, Aboriginal heritage and repatriation manager at the South Australian Museum, told me that Yukun’s skull was in “Box 39” in the museum’s vast holdings of more than 4000 human remains, mostly Indigenous Australians. (The year before, the museum had relocated Yukun’s remains, along with more than 400 others from the University of Adelaide, to a dedicated keeping place to begin the process of repatriation.)
Years later, I still have no words for the synchronicity of this revelation with my presence in McKinnon’s daughter’s home. The story I’d been following – which involved a combination of interviews, Aboriginal oral history and research in various whitefella archives, including a family garage – seemed to have its own rhythm and time of telling.
Writing the book, I’d tried to place two histories in conversation: the whitefella history of McKinnon’s shooting of Yukun and the Anangu oral history of the same event. In October, as I travelled to Uluru to attend the repatriation ceremony, I had no idea that the convergence of these two histories would continue to unfold in surprising ways.
Driving from Yulara to Mutitjulu Waterhole on the morning of October 13, I picked up Ross, Alistair and Ruth McKinnon. As we came closer to the rock, I wondered what Bill McKinnon would have thought if he could have known that his great-nephews and Yukun’s family would one day return to re-bury the man he had killed.
Before the ceremony began, in yet another breathtaking act of generosity, Sammy Wilson called me over to stand in front of Yukun’s descendants. “Thank you,” he said. “You’re one of the family now.” I was overwhelmed by this inclusion, and I still am. As I was about to discover, nothing would bring whitefella and blackfella histories together as closely as the return of Yukun’s remains.
On October 11, a few days before the ceremony, I drove to Areyonga with Lorena Allam, Guardian Australia’s Indigenous affairs editor, and photographer Dean Sewell. Like the ABC 7.30 team also present, we were there to talk to Yukun’s descendants and others who were related to Joseph Donald, the man whom filmmaker David Batty filmed at Docker River in 1986, explaining how he’d watched as McKinnon and his tracker dragged an already badly wounded Yukun from the cave and shot him at point-blank range.
Although COVID had stopped me from getting to Areyonga in the last weeks before Return to Uluru went to press, I was able to include a photograph of Abraham Poulson and his son, Stefan, taken by Sammy Wilson shortly after he told them that their ancestor’s remains were in the South Australian Museum. Now, driving there for the first time, I had no idea how Yukun’s family would respond to our presence or how many people in the community had read the book.
After 180 kilometres of sealed road, the route turned abruptly to a wide, heavily corrugated dirt track. The constant jolting was more than sufficient to stop conversation – a daily reality for anyone who lives in remote communities. After an hour or so, we descended gradually into a narrow valley, rimmed by steep red hills flecked with spinifex, the road following the course of a dry creek bed past an assortment of donkeys and horses, until we eventually reached the community below, established in the 1920s when many Aboriginal people, driven by drought and lured by missionaries, left the Petermann Ranges for the Hermannsburg area.
We were conscious of the brevity of our presence – another group of whitefellas from the south-east chasing a story, descending on a community of little more than 200 people with our cameras, notebooks and microphones. But we also wanted to bring the families’ voices, and the harrowing story of Yukun’s death and the repatriation of his remains, to a national audience. It quickly became apparent that this was what the community wanted too.
Although there was a schedule of interviews organised by the Central Land Council, which had liaised with the families and the South Australian Museum to organise the repatriation, some of the most unexpected remarks came from people who approached me of their own accord, simply because they wanted me to “write things down”.
Standing in the middle of Areyonga’s basketball court, notebook in hand, I was approached by a group of women. I’d been identified as the “book fella”, and within minutes, I was encircled by women wanting me to record their names and relations to Yukun and Joseph Donald. Before any word was spoken about the manner of Yukun’s death or the theft of his remains, family connections came first. “Write it here,” they said, pointing to my notebook, as if there was no separation between now and the events of 1934. It was as much their story as it was Yukun’s. What had happened to him had happened to them too.
Over the next six hours, we listened as family members told us of their sadness, suffering and anger. Their outrage over the injustice of Yukun’s death, and the fact that McKinnon had hidden the truth for a lifetime, was compounded by the grief they felt knowing that Yukun’s remains had been stolen and withheld from them for so long. Reading excerpts from the journals Strehlow had kept during the board of inquiry’s investigations upset them deeply. Not only had whitefella law taken Yukun’s life, it had also possessed him in death.
Everyone stressed the innocence of the men McKinnon hunted to the rock. With great force and dignity, Abraham Poulson spoke on behalf of his community: “We’re telling the world to [let them] know what’s happened … Yukun’s been taken away for many, many years. For days and nights, winters and summers he’s been gone. Families suffering and looking for answers … and now they’re coming for us.” He stressed that the institutions responsible must be held “accountable”. “Just one body part has been returned … there must be an apology, both from the Northern Territory police and the Commonwealth government.” And with this apology, Poulson insisted, compensation from the Commonwealth to the families involved must follow, and “sooner rather than later”.
Margaret Poulson recalled the disruption to her family caused by Yukun’s death. “My mother was promised to Yukun, she was to marry him,” she said. Her youngest son, Wilbur, who would stand in the grave three days later, carried a photo of Yukun on his mobile phone. He’d placed it next to one of himself to illustrate the likeness between them. “Yukun’s got my nose,” he said, smiling.
In the late afternoon, when I thought that I’d reached nearly everyone who wanted to speak to me, Lorena Allam told me that Hilda Bert was keen to talk. Hilda, a proud member of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, had kept a story to herself for decades. When she was in her early twenties, she heard how her grandfather had one day encountered the tracker “Police Paddy”, the man who had wounded Yukun as McKinnon chased him to Uluru. He asked Paddy – a western Arrernte man from the north side of the MacDonnell Ranges who was notorious throughout the Northern Territory for his murderous violence – what had happened to Yukun. Paddy told him that Yukun had been shot and killed by McKinnon. Hilda’s grandfather then speared Paddy as payback. “When I read your book,” Hilda said, head in hand, “I knew that my mother, who told the story, was telling the truth.”
This was the first time I’d heard this story. But it was consistent with Police Paddy’s feared and much despised reputation, and it showed that he got his due under Aboriginal law, or at least a portion. It was Paddy who was responsible for killing many people in the Coniston massacre in 1928. And when McKinnon extracted confessions from the men he arrested in 1934, it was Paddy who meted out some of the most heinous violence, as Reggie Uluru explained at Mutitjulu on the eve of the repatriation: “It was that tracker who kept pushing them to admit. He would insult them and blame them … Paddy was a bad man; he was a rough man.”
As more and more evidence came to light, I could see how the story of what happened at Uluru had touched every member of the community. If I could have stayed for six years instead of six hours, many more details would have emerged. When writing history from archival sources, the catalogue references eventually come to an end. But in this case, the story expanded through a web of family connections and stories that had been told and retold down the years. It was a collective narrative of trauma, injustice and survival told from countless vantage points, shifting and deepening in complexity with each telling. So long as the community survived, there was no end to the story.
Researching McKinnon’s life, I’d focused on his immediate family – his daughter and his grandchildren. While they were well aware that he’d spent most of his working life in the Northern Territory Police Force, they knew nothing about his shooting of Yukun and the inquiry, and little of the broader history of the Central Australian frontier in the early 20th century. For them, the book came as a shock, and it understandably provoked a range of responses in the family. After the book was published, I travelled to Brisbane to talk with them; a debriefing the like of which I’d never experienced before.
The family members were welcoming and generous, and while they were fully supportive of the need for “reconciliation”, they also had different views about the revelations in the book. Some wondered whether McKinnon, as a policeman obliged to apprehend a man he saw as an escaped prisoner resisting arrest, was “doing his job” when he fired into the cave to hit Yukun. Others were still trying to work through what they felt and thought. But none of them was keen to be placed in the public eye.
When it finally came to deciding if any of the family would attend the repatriation ceremony, Matt Golledge, McKinnon’s youngest grandchild, the person whom I’d dealt with most closely in the lead-up to the book’s publication, decided he would not ask Yukun’s family if he could attend. After reading the book, he knew that his grandfather had maintained until the end of his life that he was upholding the law. Consequently, while Matt deeply regretted what had happened and the impact on Yukun’s family, he remained ambivalent about attending the ceremony. On the morning it took place, he sent me a text. “All the best with today. Thanks, Matt.”
For another side of Bill McKinnon’s family, one step removed, it was all very different. Alistair McKinnon, the policeman’s great-nephew, contacted me after he had read Return to Uluru. From the moment I told him about the impending repatriation of Yukun’s remains, Alistair and his brother, Ross, expressed their strong interest in attending. Meeting them for the first time at the ceremony, I was surprised to learn that their family had not only known about the events at Uluru, but that 20 years earlier their father had tried to apologise for what had happened.
Along with their older brother, Malcolm, who was unable to join them at the ceremony, Alistair and Ross had grown up in Victoria. As children, they had little contact with Bill McKinnon’s side of the family, except for one visit to their retired great uncle’s home in Buderim sometime in the early 1970s. They distinctly recall seeing a cache of rifles, breast plates and neck chains – souvenirs of the policeman’s frontier – stored under his old Queenslander, a memory that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
Ross remembered his discomfort when he visited the Cultural Centre at Uluru in the 1990s and saw video footage (most likely taken from David Roberts’ 1986 film, Uluru: An Anangu Story) of Aboriginal men talking about Yukun’s death and the trauma it had caused for Anangu. More surprisingly, from 2014 to 2018, Malcolm had worked as a coach driver and tour guide with a local company that conducted tours through Central Australia and the Top End. He took groups of tourists to Mutitjulu Waterhole, sometimes telling them the story of his great uncle shooting Yukun, admitting, somewhat “embarrassingly”, his family’s “involvement in a piece of Australian history”.
During his time working in Central Australia, Malcolm also met Bill McKinnon’s old friend, Peter Severin, who owned Curtin Springs Station and its roadhouse. Even today, a large photograph of the two men taken in the 1980s hangs prominently over the entrance to the roadhouse, positioned next to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. Once Severin knew that Malcolm was related, stories of the old days flowed freely, including anecdotes about how McKinnon had made offhand remarks about “shooting blacks”. It was second-hand evidence, but it was entirely consistent with other remarks McKinnon had made.
A week after the repatriation ceremony, Alistair sent me a 1961 newspaper clipping, which quoted McKinnon on the eve of his retirement, reminiscing about the events of 1934. “On one of [my] patrols [near Uluru],” said McKinnon, “I had to shoot an Aboriginal in self-defence … I was forced to shoot [him] when he attacked me with his weapons.” As well as peddling the lie of self-defence, McKinnon revealed that he had learnt “never to be weak with the natives”. “If I had been weak my life would have been in danger.”
In the years after he retired, McKinnon corresponded with his nephew Allan, father to Malcolm, Ross and Alistair. In 2002, an article in the Geelong Advertiser told the story of Allan’s meeting with Aboriginal leader Bob Randall, at the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. Randall had been taken away from his family by McKinnon when he was five, and sent to the Croker Island Mission off the coast of Darwin. He was eventually thrown out, and began his long search for his mother, but by the time he identified her she was dead. Allan apologised to Randall because “his uncle was the one who stole [him] from his mother’s arms”. He also told him how Bill McKinnon had shot [Randall’s] “uncle dead in a cave at Uluru”. McKinnon, Allan said, had “told him in his letters”.
Sitting with Randall, Allan feared that “he would be blamed, that the bloody legacy of his uncle had somehow corrupted him”. But the two men hugged as Allan told him, “I am sorry for what my uncle did to you and your family … I have wanted to say sorry for such a long time.” Randall accepted Allan’s apology and forgave him, promising to show him the place where he’d been taken from his family when Allan visited Central Australia. Soon afterwards, Allan and his wife, Dorothy, made the journey north. They met up with Randall and visited Uluru, including the Mutitjulu community and Mutitjulu Waterhole. Remarkably, the reconciliation that took place at Yukun’s repatriation was not the first moment of reconciliation between the two families.
For Ross and Alistair, being able to attend the ceremony honoured their parents’ commitment to “truth-telling and reconciliation”, as well as expressing their own belief in the self-same ideals. As Ross told me later, their father “carried his knowledge of the family history quite heavily … [and] he would have travelled great distances” to be present for the repatriation of Yukun’s remains. Alistair too, knew that his parents “would have been absolutely supportive” of their attendance. “I generally don’t think too much about being a ‘McKinnon’,” he said, “but it felt significant on that day. The importance of family and connections was very evident.” For Malcolm, his knowledge of what had happened in 1934 resulted in a deep “emotional connection” to Uluru. When he received a cancer diagnosis and was unable to continue his work there, it made him uneasy. “I suspect that my reaction to not being able to visit Uluru after I got crook was probably that subconsciously I saw it as unfinished business.”
Knowing history is one thing, but for McKinnon’s great-nephews, and for myself, meeting Yukun’s family had transformed that knowledge into something else entirely. History had become personal and tangible; no longer distant and abstract, it was fully human and present, with all of the complications this entails.
Yukun’s road home had been long and difficult. For the South Australian Museum’s John Carty and Anna Russo, who have guided the return of more than 600 Indigenous remains to their ancestral lands since the museum’s repatriation program re-launched in 2018, Yukun’s case was special. As Carty explained, “there’s something beautiful and powerful about repatriation that I believe in deeply. But this felt different from the beginning … We usually don’t know the names or identities of the ancestors we bring home. But this is one man. We know his name. We know his children. We know his grandchildren. We know the man who shot him and we know his family … so there’s this incredibly acute sense of injustice and of pain and unresolved grief that has a name – Yukun.”
The work of repatriation – extensive research and cross-checking, collaborating with Aboriginal families, land councils, local government and media – is driven by the desire to “re-humanise” remains and strengthen communities, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal. It’s also emotionally demanding, as Russo told me: “Because the material is so confronting, you have to trust one another beyond your professional relationship.” Carty agreed: “You’re dealing with huge elemental things. You can’t hide. And you have to be vulnerable and available to the pain and grief, the pain of our history and the disempowerment that Aboriginal people have experienced. You have to bear witness. Truth-telling has to have a local and human scale – it’s not a history lesson when you’re standing at the grave crying too.”
The years-long process of bringing Yukun home – establishing his identity, dealing with COVID-related delays, arranging a cabinetmaker to build the small casket the families had requested for him, and Carty taking the casket through airport security and onto the plane, sleeping with it in his motel room at Uluru and finally delivering it to Yukun’s family – seemed to elicit even more emotion than usual. “It hit me all of a sudden,” Carty said. “It’s been 88 years since Yukun was on Country. I started talking to him. You’re home, old man.”
Undeniably, the emotional and national significance of Yukun’s return was intimately connected to its location at Uluru – a rare coming together of the currents of history that exposed the cumulative grief and trauma of Indigenous Australians across the country, and pointed directly to their present predicament and the need to heed the Uluru Statement from the Heart. As Sammy Wilson told mourners at the repatriation: “This is so important for Australia. We have to bring younger generations here so they can learn about what happened. It can happen again. And it’s happening now – look at Yuendumu.”
Wilson’s explicit reference to Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker, who died in 2019 after being shot three times by police officer Zachary Rolfe, was made by many Anangu in the days before Yukun’s repatriation. The comparison was glaring. Yet another Aboriginal man loses his life unnecessarily due to the brutal actions of police. In a disturbing echo of the 1934 events, Rolfe claimed he had acted in self-defence when Walker resisted arrest and attacked him with a pair of scissors.
A friend of mine who teaches in an Alice Springs primary school told me that Aboriginal children there have invented a new game in the playground. “The cops chase the black kids, catch them and arrest them,” one told her. “Then they march them to jail.” They call it “Arrests”.
For more than 150 years, it was police and their trackers who were responsible for many of the massacres of Aboriginal people. It was governments and their police who often turned a blind eye to the vigilantes who “cleared” the country of its rightful owners. It was police who took children from their families and facilitated their “re-education” in state and religious institutions. And it was police who represented the brutal imposition of whitefella law over the laws and cultures of First Nations peoples. Despite numerous investigations and inquiries over the years, no police officer in Australia has ever been convicted for the murder of an Aboriginal person.
At Areyonga, when I asked Abraham Poulson about Yuendumu and the imposition of whitefella law on his people, he was frank. “That law is still governing [our communities] like an umbrella, police are still doing the wrong thing,” he said. “Whitefella law is the wrong law.”
The injustice highlighted by Yukun’s story is ongoing. Now that the Northern Territory Police Force and government are aware that McKinnon lied to the Commonwealth board of inquiry, will they apologise to Yukun’s family and the families of the other men hunted to Uluru? And what of the Commonwealth government? Will it apologise for John Cleland’s theft of Yukun’s remains? Will the Commonwealth establish a national reparations program for the Aboriginal families who have lost their ancestors to museums and institutions across the country and overseas? And what of the families of the more than 500 Indigenous men and women who have died in police custody since the report of the Royal Commission into Indigenous Deaths in Custody was handed down in 1991?
Noel Pearson’s observation in his 2022 Boyer Lectures, that Indigenous Australians are a “much unloved people”, has cut through because of the discomforting truth it contains. If we weigh the nation’s emotional investment in the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier at the Australian War Memorial and all that he represents, against our response to the thousands of unknown Indigenous Australians whose remains still languish in institutions here and overseas, Pearson’s remark is vindicated. And there are countless ways to demonstrate its veracity. As Joy Kunia pointed out at Areyonga before the repatriation, “Yukun wasn’t the only one … [It was] everyone everywhere [who] were treated this way.”
The morning after the repatriation, I returned to Mutitjulu Waterhole with Alistair, Ruth and Ross McKinnon to meet one more time with Sammy Wilson and his partner, Kathy Tozer. John Carty was also there. Together, we walked to Yukun’s grave, now marked by a small mound of dirt crowned with a few sticks. Sammy told us that Anangu had decided to place an interpretative panel close to the site that will tell the story of Yukun’s death – truth-telling that will also profoundly alter the nature of the stories presented to tourists at Uluru.
Yukun’s return to Uluru and the story of his violent frontier death enter the same sacred space as the story of the battle between Kuniya (the python woman) and Liru (the brown snakes), which Sammy related to us in the most animated fashion, pointing out the grooves and scars on the rock that trace her desperate struggle and ultimate revenge. “Yukun,” declared Sammy, is finally home. “This is the museum for him. Here.”
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