CASS alumna, Shannyn Palmer receives Prime Ministers Literary Award for Unmaking Angas Downs

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Shannyn Palmer PhD ‘17, a distinguished alumna of the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS) at the Australian National University (ANU), is the recipient of the 2023 Prime Minister's Literary Award for Australian History for her book, Unmaking Angas Downs:Myth and History on a Central Australian Pastoral Station. Published in 2022, Palmer's work offers, “a history of colonisation in the southwest of Central Australia and uses the station as a lens to tell that story,” she explains.


Flicking through a rare anthropological book from the 1960s, Shannyn Palmer's remarkable journey to winning the 2023 Prime Minister's Literary Award began.

In the back pages, 150 black and white portraits captured everyday lifeof the Aṉangu people living on the Angas Downs cattle station. Leading her to embark on a journey of inquiry and exploration that would eventually culminate in her award-winning work.

Undertaking doctoral research in History, bolstered by a scholarship through Ann McGrath’s Deepening Histories of Place ARC Linkage Project. Under the guidance of her primary supervisor, Professor Maria Nugent (ANU), and supported by a panel including Professor Martin Thomas (ANU) and Dr Luke Taylor (AIATSIS), Palmer was determined to better understand the nation’s history.

As such, Palmer relocated to Alice Springs to work closely with elder Aṉangu, Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong, who lived in the remote community of Imanpa, located approximately 200km southwest of Alice Springs.

“It didn't feel right or ethical to be seeking to undertake a project like that and flying in and flying out from Canberra. The relationships with Tjuki and Sandra and other Aṉangu are at the heart of that book and I think that that's what's been reflected in the award now as well, is that it was a project that was rooted in relationships and listening and I just couldn't do that from Canberra.”

Integral to this research, were interpreters: Linda Rive, an oral historian and Western desert language specialist, and Sam Osborne, who recorded interviews with Sandra Armstrong for his own PhD research. Their expertise was crucial in translating and accurately recording the oral histories in Pitjantjatjara, ensuring these narratives were meticulously preserved by the by Ara Irititja project.

“Ara Irititja is an Aṉangu archival project. It emerged out of Aṉangu getting together and repatriating a lot of historical materials that existed in museums and libraries and archives into a central database that Aṉangu can access. Linda in particular saw great value in the project because everything that we recorded together was archived [in Ara Irititja] in real time,” Palmer explains.

Reflecting on historical narratives’ often overlooked aspects, Palmer comments, "I started contemplating the silences and what Tom Griffiths describes as 'white noise' in much of our 20th-century history writing… Those tangible written, traces of the past have very much been the cornerstone of the historian's craft and there's so much here that for me and from a First Nations perspective, that hasn't been written down.”

Palmer also reflects on the unique and perhaps limiting perspective historians hold regarding time, often adhering to a linear narrative of cause and effect. This insight led her to consider if such methodologies might inadvertently be responsible for the 'silences' and 'white noise' in historical accounts.

“What does it mean to be a historian and research and write history using Country and the landscape as an archive and forms of knowledge that are embodied in terms of memory and different understandings of time … I thought having a particular place as the focus would be a way in to exploring those questions,” Palmer shares.

These questions guided her to investigate critical themes centred around a specific place, thereby opening doors to a deeper exploration of these important historical inquiries. As reflected in the judge’s comments, her work significantly contributes to a broader understanding and reconciliation of Australia's past and the way that story is told.

“In an age that calls for truth-telling, she models an exemplary act of truth-listening… A nimble high-wire act of cross-cultural research, interpretation and communication. Her book not only rewrites the history of colonisation in Central Australia; it offers a model of engaged listening and interwoven truth-telling that pushes the boundaries of the discipline of history in Australia. A book for our times, it invites new ways of reading, as well as writing, the history of a colonised nation. An exceptional work of historical scholarship by an exciting new voice in history-making (and unmaking).”

In response Palmer says, “It meant a lot to me that active listening was emphasised in the judges’ comments. Following the release of the Uluru Statement of the Heart there has been an intense focus on truth telling. It is a vital undertaking that we all need to embark on, but I think it's particularly important for settler historians and settler scholars, settler people in general, to cultivate the art and practice of deep listening. And that’s something that I felt really heavily in the wake of the referendum and in the debate leading up to it as well, just so much noise and no space for listening. If we are to grapple with and really reckon with our past as a settler colonised nation, listening is going to be crucial in that endeavour... It is a practice that can be cultivated.”

Through her interactions with Tjuki, Sandra, and the Aṉangu community, Palmer uncovered layers of history that significantly differ from established national myths. This exploration led not only to an 'unmaking' of these myths but also to a profound personal transformation for Palmer herself.

“I went in one person and came out the other side, a different person,” she says.

The generosity of Tjuki, Sandra, and their community in sharing their stories and knowledge was pivotal in writing a different perspective. Receiving this award is not just a personal accolade for Palmer; it is a recognition of the voices and stories of the Aṉangu that she brought to the forefront. The pride and honour she feels is shared with Tjuki and Sandra’s family, a validation of their history and their enduring connection to Country.

Both Tjuki and Sandra have since passed away, however Palmer remains in close contact with their grandkids and the community.