Q & A with Shannyn Palmer—Author of Unmaking Angas Downs
1. What is Angas Downs?
Angas Downs was the name that William ‘Bill’ Liddle gave to the pastoral station he established around 1928-29 at a place called Walara, which is situated on the edge of the Western Desert. It’s located 300 kilometres southwest of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and 135 kilometres east of Uluru and spans across 320,000 hectares of the Central Australian Ranges. The station was declared an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in 2009.
2. Who are the Anangu, and what is their connection to Angas Downs?
People with present-day connections to Angas Downs speak a number of different dialects of a shared Western Desert language. Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra are a few of the names that were given when white settlers arrived and began asking desert people to define who they were in relation to others. Anangu, which is their word for person or people, is the term that they use to refer to themselves. Many Anangu made Angas Downs station their home throughout the middle decades of the twentieth century.
3. How did you come to write about the history of this place?
I first learned of Angas Downs when I came across an unusual ethnography by anthropologist Frederick Rose, called The Wind of Change in Central Australia: The Aborigines at Angas Downs, 1962. I was particularly struck by the last pages of the book, which were made up 150 black and white portraits of the Anangu who were living on Angas Downs during the four months that Rose carried out his fieldwork.
Half a century after it was published, I took The Wind of Change on a journey to Imanpa community, a place with strong connections to Angas Downs. When I first visited Imanpa, many people told me that if I wanted to learn about Angas Downs I should seek out Tjuki Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong, the two people recognised as having the longest and deepest association with this place. Over the following four years, I built a relationship with both of them and travelled all over Angas Downs and beyond, listening to them and learning the history of this place.
4. What was the most surprising story you uncovered while researching the history of Angas Downs?
This is a hard question! There were so many surprising stories from Angas Downs. Because it’s a pastoral station, I began this project with a lot of assumptions about what kind of place it was. Once I began working with Anangu I began to realise that pastoralism was only a fraction of the story of this place.
I was fascinated by the central role that Angas Downs played in the development of early tourism to Uluru. Thousands of tourists visited Angas Downs every year in the late 1950s and 1960s to eat a three-course meal and meet and trade with Anangu. Unlike other stations or missions in the region, there was a thriving economy on Angas Downs that had nothing to do with pastoralism!
If I can sneak in one more, I was also interested to learn about the important relationship between Anangu and camels, in particular how these animals revolutionised the ways in which Anangu travelled throughout the region in the post-war period.
5. What message would you like to leave readers once they finish the book?
Some stories dominate how we see particular places, while others are hidden and obscured from view. I hope that this book encourages readers to look beyond the myths and histories of nationhood that have dominated how we think about Australia, especially in the heavily mythologised ‘outback’, and begin to listen deeply to the other peoples, languages, knowledges and stories that have made the places we so often take for granted.