Inside Story

Revisiting Bloodwood Bore

An extract from Unmaking Angas Downs, which has won this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Australian History

Shannyn Palmer 17 November 2023 2694 words

Bloodwood Bore, Angas Downs, 2014. Shannyn Palmer

First published 9 September 2022

For a few months in the second half of 1962 the British-born anthropologist Frederick Rose lived at Bloodwood Bore, the site of the second Angas Downs homestead, 135 kilometres east of Uluru. Rose was an unconventional anthropologist — an Inside Story article about his life is titled “Communist, scientist, lover, spy” — and his visit produced a rather unconventional book.

Anthropologists in the middle decades of the twentieth century primarily described and analysed the “traditional” life of First Nations people who had experienced minimal contact with white settlers. An imagined dichotomy between “traditional” and “non-traditional” peoples was deeply ingrained in the field; those whose lands had been intensely occupied were assumed to have lost their culture and were therefore not seen as worthy subjects of anthropological study.

Rose’s book, The Wind of Change in Central Australia: The Aborigines at Angas Downs, 1962, was different. Set on a desert pastoral station, it focused on the changes in Anangu social and cultural life brought about by the encounter with tourists, cash and commodities .

Not surprisingly, The Wind of Change has largely been overlooked in the canon of desert ethnography. Rose was only incidentally interested the traditional life of Anangu, or what he referred to as their “cult life.” As a devout Marxist and committed member of the Communist Party, he filtered his ethnographic study through a materialist lens. A process of “detribalisation,” as he called it, was taking place on the station, accelerated by the commodification of material culture and the encounter with the cash economy that had emerged with tourism in the region. As he saw it, the “traditional” way of life on Angas Downs had virtually disappeared by 1962.

The strangeness of Rose’s ethnography struck me when I first laid eyes on it. As I flicked through the pages, my eyes danced over the text and tables and came to dwell on the black-and-white photographs scattered throughout that captured people and everyday life on the station. Unlike other ethnographies of the time, the people in The Wind of Change were photographed wearing settler clothing, collecting rations, receiving haircuts, playing card games and trading with tourists.

I was particularly struck by the last pages of the book — 150 black-and-white portraits of the people living on Angas Downs during the four months of Rose’s fieldwork. The photographs were immediate and intimate in their close focus on the faces of the people they captured. Some looked uncomfortable, as though Rose’s request to photograph them was perhaps an annoyance, while others were smiling and seemed happy to have their picture taken. The portraits, which represented several generations, are arranged in grids of three-by-three over sixteen pages.

No names accompany the photographs; rather, they are numbered from 1 to 150. Who were these people, I wondered, and what had drawn so many of them to this place?

In 2012, half a century after it was published, I took Rose’s The Wind of Change on a journey back into the country on which it was produced. I moved from Ngunnawal Ngambri Country, in the place now known as Canberra, to Mparntwe in Central Arrernte Country, otherwise known as Alice Springs.

Not long after I arrived, I took out a loan and bought a green 80 Series Toyota Landcruiser, which soon assumed the role of beloved and trustworthy travelling companion. Over the following four years, we travelled tens of thousands of kilometres throughout the Central and Western deserts. This act of travelling to the heart of the continent echoed the journeys of countless white settlers who came to this place before me, in search of something. Yes, I was seeking to learn about the history of Angas Downs. But I was also searching for insights into the settler historical imagination and ways of seeing the past.

As a white settler who grew up in a regional Victorian town which local memory didn’t acknowledge as being on Dja Dja Wurrung Country, I was troubled by the silences and white noise that dominated Australian history writing throughout much of the twentieth century. I wanted to explore the implications of different ways of knowing the world for historical research and writing in a colonised settler nation.

I also wanted to engage with my own nagging sense of dislocation. We all inherit the consequences of colonialism and, as psychologist Craig San Roque describes it, I have felt “displaced from my integrity by the very act of displacing others from theirs.” And so, in exploring other ways of knowing the past, I have also wanted to explore what it means to belong on stolen land.

When I began this project, I was acutely aware of the ways in which research and colonialism were deeply entangled in what Edward Said referred to as the West’s “will to power.” Here in Australia, as elsewhere, white settler researchers, academics and writers have sought to categorise, describe and speak for the “Other” in an effort not only to understand but also to control, manipulate and even incorporate First Nations peoples and ways of knowing.

Mindful of this, I sought to develop an approach to research that wouldn’t own or consume the knowledges I engaged with. Rather, I wanted to explore how engaging with these knowledges might help us to better understand our shared past.

Rose’s book was the catalyst for my encounter with Anangu in the remote community of Imanpa, a place with strong connections to Angas Downs. Around 200 kilometres southwest of Mparntwe, 160 kilometres east of Uluru and a few kilometres off the Lasseter Highway, Imanpa is home to mostly Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara speakers.

The Wind of Change is a rare book and most Anangu I met had never seen one before. They had no interest in the ethnography itself. Rather, it was the photographs they wanted to see. I became known as the “kungka [young woman] with the book.” When Anangu saw my Landcruiser arrive in the community and pull up at the store, I would inevitably hear shouts along the lines of, “Hey, kungka, I want to see that book!” Over a four-year period, I travelled from Mparntwe to Imanpa, and beyond, working with Anangu and learning how to see and understand this place.

The copy of The Wind of Change I carried with me bears the marks of the process — the front and back covers have fallen away, some pages have come out, and many other pages are dog-eared, stained and worn thinner by the countless pairs of hands that turned them over and over, and over again.

As Anangu mobilised Rose’s photographs to tell stories, this ethnographic artefact was made into a very different kind of object. The grids of numbered portraits were transformed into a family photo album. Holding the book in their hands, they would move through the portraits, one by one, and tell me who each person was, how they were related to them, and where the person, or their family, was now. Their reading of Rose stretched through time and space, weaving threads of memory that intimately connected the living present with the past world he captured.

Anangu stories tracked and traced the various social and cultural practices that intersected at Angas Downs, revealing how people came to make a place for themselves in the wake of colonialism. Listening to them, I heard histories that are obscured by the single, fixed idea of the pastoral station. What emerged was an understanding of this place as living — made and inhabited by Anangu, even though, at first glance, it appeared to be the product of white settler intervention.

The book that emerged from my research traces the rise and demise of Angas Station over half a century. It tracks the complex and creative social and cultural practices the Anangu mobilised to make sense of the places that emerged when white settlers came to the desert.

Top row, left: Sandra Armstrong at Bloodwood Bore, Angas Downs, in 1962. Sandra was “No. 90” in Frederick Rose’s portraits. Sandra Armstrong holding a photograph of herself from the Frederick Rose archive during a research trip to the Mitchell Library in 2013. Sandra said that she worked with Rose and would sit with him looking through his photographs and he would ask her “What do you call this one?” and she would tell him the language the names for kin relationships. SLNSW Frederick Rose Papers Box 8
Top row, right: Sandra Armstrong holding a photograph of herself from the Frederick Rose archive during a research trip to the Mitchell Library in 2013. Source: Shannyn Palmer
Bottom row, left: Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack at Bloodwood Bore, Angas Downs, 1962. This photograph is “No. 1” in Frederick Rose’s book, The Wind of Change in Central Australia: The Aborigines at Angas Downs, 1962. Placing Tjuki as No. 1 reflected Rose’s recognition of Tjuki’s senior status at Angas Downs. Sandra Armstrong too said of Tjuki’s authority, “Old Tjuki Tjukanku was really ninti [knowledgeable], he was number one.” SLNSW Frederick Rose Papers Box 8.
Bottom row, right: Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack on the veranda of his house at Imanpa Community in 2013. Rhett Hammerton.

When I first started visiting Imanpa, numerous people told me that if I wanted to learn more about Angas Downs I should seek out Tjuki Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong, whose families were among the earliest arrivals at Angas Downs. They considered themselves, and are thought of by many, as having the most knowledge, and therefore the authority, to speak for this place.

I met Tjuki for the first time in June 2012. I had travelled to Imanpa to see Sandra, whom I had met previously, by chance, when she grabbed my wrist as I was walking past an ATM in Yulara and asked me to help her retrieve her card from the machine. She had no idea who I was, or what my interest in Angas Downs was, but I recognised her immediately.

On that day in June I was unable to find her in Imanpa and so I went to sit on a bench across from the community store. As I sat there, I noticed Tjuki and his wife Rosie slowly shuffling towards the store. As they approached, I asked them in Pitjantjatjara how they were and whether they had seen Sandra. They hadn’t. I explained that I had an old book with lots of photographs from Angas Downs and was hoping to find Sandra to talk to her about the station. Tjuki replied, “Angie Downs, that my Country.”

Tjuki and Rosie made their way over to where I was sitting on the bench and I handed him Rose’s book. Tjuki smiled and laughed as he flicked through the pages of photographs, and when he came across the portrait of himself, he turned to me and said, “That’s me when I young fella, no whiskers.” I had heard that Sandra was at Angas Downs, so I asked Tjuki and Rosie if they would like to come for a drive to the station to see if she was there. Tjuki stood up without hesitation and looked to me to point out which Landcruiser we would be travelling in. That was the first time I visited Bloodwood Bore, and the only time I spent on Angas Downs with both Tjuki and Sandra.

Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack was born around 1926–28. His life history began before white settlers had really begun to penetrate the desert. Over four years we travelled together, recording his stories. It was important to me, and also for future generations of his family, that his life history was recorded in his language, Pitjantjatjara.

Tjuki, as he liked to be called, was a gifted raconteur, and many of his stories were long and detailed. My grasp of Pitjantjatjara was rudimentary at best when we first started working together, so we collaborated with oral historian and Western Desert language interpreter and translator Linda Rive. She travelled with us, interpreting Tjuki’s oral histories in place, and later translating and transcribing into English the recordings made with him.

Our trips “out bush” always revolved around food. Before leaving, I would prepare a meal in the camp oven, and when we arrived at our destination we would begin by building a fire. Once we were settled on camping chairs, cups of tea in hand, Tjuki would begin remembering while the food cooked among the coals. Where possible, he chose the locations in which the recordings took place, and who was present. He also decided which stories we would record once we got to a location, and these were inevitably shaped by the place in which we found ourselves.

Sandra Armstrong was born nearly a generation after Tjuki, in 1942. When I met with her at Bloodwood Bore on that day in June, Sandra told me that the place where we sat was her Country. She showed me where Anangu lived on the station; where the old homestead used to be; and the site of the “chalet” that catered to thousands of tourists who passed through Angas Downs station in the late 1950s and 1960s, on their way to Uluru.

As we sat drinking tea, Sandra motioned to the site of the old chalet and told me that she used to work there, preparing meals for the tourists and cleaning up after them. She also recalled that two men called Captain and Harry Brumby would go from Angas Downs to catch wild camels, and then bring them back to the station to break them in. Over the years that followed, Sandra and I travelled widely together, and much of what I learned from her evolved from many hours spent driving, sitting and talking.

Whereas Tjuki, Linda and I visited various locations on Angas Downs and the surrounding country, Sandra and I travelled further afield in the Central and Western deserts, and as far away as Sydney, as well as spending time together at Bloodwood Bore, Imanpa and Anthelk-Ewlpaye (Charles Creek) town camp in Mparntwe. Travelling to, and experiencing, the landscape was critical in my developing an understanding of this place grounded in its physical reality. Visiting ruins, rock art sites and water sources, and learning place names informed my developing awareness of Angas Downs as a place steeped in the Tjukurpa, deep time and historical time.

Learning while on the move, I also came to understand that mobility is a fundamental fact of desert life, and it was the path, not the place, that was the key to understanding Angas Downs.

Both Tjuki and Sandra were on a mission to have their knowledge and their relationship to Angas Downs recorded. They were aware that I wanted to learn more about Angas Downs in order to write a history of this place, but they had their own reasons for choosing to work with me. Despite the different circumstances under which they were recorded, Tjuki’s and Sandra’s life histories have a certain politics in common.

Although their experiences varied, their stories amplify a central statement about their identification with Angas Downs as ngura, or Country. Their oral histories are very much about a present concern that speaks to a fraught politics of place, recognition and sovereignty.

Places accrue people and stories, in multiple layers, over time. Some of these stories come to dominate how we see and interpret a place, while others are obscured from view. While Angas Downs is ostensibly a pastoral station, pastoralism is only a fraction of the story of this place. We can’t understand Angas Downs without the stories and the memories of the people who lived there. Listening to them, a very different kind of place emerges from that conjured in the myths and histories of pioneers and pastoralists that have dominated understandings of the past in Australia — particularly in the Northern Territory.

Travelling with and learning from Tjuki and Sandra, I came to understand that more than a spatial location, or simple stage for human action, places are complex constructions, made from local cultural material and practices, and the interactions between people, other species and the land. •

This essay draws on the introduction to Shannyn Palmer’s Unmaking Angas Downs, Myth and History on a Central Australian Pastoral Station, published last week by Melbourne University Press