Unmaking Angas Downs by Shannyn Palmer

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

With Shannyn Palmer we meet a writer who is very difficult not to quote. We can paraphrase her but always run the risk of producing a lower-rate product. What does this strangely titled book set out to tell us? Why do we need a new work of history that seeks to unmake mythologies of pioneers, pastoralism, and possession in the Northern Territory. That is a very large task.

Angas Downs is a pastoral station in Central Australia. Pastoralism is its business, its chief money earner – but pastoralism is only a fraction of what has gone on there. Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong, if they were still alive, would have soon had you spellbound with stories of people and places in multiple layers, with tales of a very different kind of place than you will hear in the myths and stories of pioneers and pastoralists. Places accrue people and stories, in multiple layers over time. Some of these stories come to dominate our perceptions and interpretations, while others sink, obscured from view.

Angas Downs, being a rural enterprise, has a history. The book grapples with the question of how people experience profound dislocation and yet turn things around. In the wake of substantial rupture, they create a place for themselves. In thinking about building activities, social interaction and social lives, we must never forget the parts played by Anangu, the First People of the land. Unmaking Angas Downs is contested territory, the past is experienced, remembered and interpreted quite differently by First Nations and settler Australians.

To tell the story adequately a writer needs to understand that more than a spatial location must be envisaged. “Places are complex constructions, made from local cultural material and practices, and the interactions between people, other species and the land” (11). The remarkable story Tjuki Pumpjack told about his place and his beard, the reason for relating to Angas Downs as his country (11) exemplifies the point.

The ways in which the contents are listed and structured provide a fine blueprint of this book. A chapter called Exodus tells of the coming of the white man and the departure of the black. Part 2 takes a particular view of the outback, making a point in particular that black people were always there. Part 3 reveals they were present when sheep turned the home station into a dusty drift, around 1943 when a new bore called Bloodwood was dug and a new station came into being. The final chapter in this section is called ‘emerging economies and making place’. It shows the successes of the Anangu in building social networks, “a web of mobility in the southwest that persisted in frustrating Welfare Branch attempts to get them to ‘settle’ into wage labouring, and domesticated nuclear family units” (128).

The final two chapters deal with ‘itineraries’ and ‘unmaking Angas Downs’. There is a comprehensive chapter on the aboriginal habit of going walkabout, but nothing much that is new is revealed within it. However, the final chapter has an important section, called ‘there’s nothing there now, but it’s still our place’, a deliberate reference back to Chapter 1 where the aboriginal understanding of ‘place’ is examined.

Readers are urged to familiarise themselves with this book. It is a welcome member to my shelves.

Unmaking Angas Downs

(2022)

By Shannyn Palmer

MUP

ISBN: 978-0-522-87838-7

$39.99; 288 pp

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