Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Schwartz Books: Black Inc.

A killing. A hidden history. A story that goes to the heart of the nation.

When Mark McKenna set out to write a history of the centre of Australia, he had no idea what he would discover. One event in 1934 – the shooting at Uluru of Aboriginal man Yokununna by white policeman Bill McKinnon, and subsequent Commonwealth inquiry – stood out as a mirror of racial politics in the Northern Territory at the time.

But then, through speaking with the families of both killer and victim, McKenna unearthed new evidence that transformed the historical record and the meaning of the event for today. As he explains, 'Every thread of the story connected to the present in surprising ways.' In a sequence of powerful revelations, McKenna explores what truth-telling and reconciliation look like in practice.

Return to Uluru brings a cold case to life. It speaks directly to the Black Lives Matter movement, but is completely Australian. Recalling Chloe Hooper's 'The Tall Man', it is superbly written, moving, and full of astonishing, unexpected twists. Ultimately it is a story of recognition and return, which goes to the very heart of the country. At the centre of it all is Uluru, the sacred site where paths fatefully converged.

About the author

Mark McKenna

Mark McKenna is one of Australia's leading historians, based at the University of Sydney. He is the author of several prize-winning books, including 'From the Edge: Australia's Lost Histories', 'Looking for Blackfellas' Point' and 'An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark', which won the Prime Minister's Literary Award for nonfiction and the Victorian, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australian premiers' awards.

Judges’ comments

This book interweaves an inseparable history. In 2017, a descendant of an escapee from a killing gave permission to use the name Uluru for the 'Statement from the Heart', which is pictorially embraced by the Dreaming story of Kuniya (python) and Liru (snake). In 1934 at the sacred cave in the rock face depicting the shield of Liru, McKinnon, a policeman shot and killed Yokununna, an Anangu man. At the enquiry he said he shot without taking aim. When White Australians first came to Uluru they recognised its transcendence comparing it to the great European cathedrals, though not understanding its sacredness for the Anangu. By the 1950s tourists visited the 'red heart' and the remaining Anangu integrated with a tourist economy. Visitors climbed the rock as a pilgrimage. The Anangu contested this desecration by 'ants'. Uluru returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1985, and in 2019 the climb up the rock was prohibited. Remarkably, McKinnon's original journal, found by the author in a garage, said he fired to hit. He had lied. McKinnon's family 'are on board for reconciliation'. While Anangu respect Yokununna's bravery, they are sad and angry at the fact that McKinnon killed him and that his remains were taken away. More importantly, they are inspired by the sacredness of the land where it occurred.