ANU Spaces - Shannyn Palmer

12 July 2017

..the stories and photographs contained within were important, because they 'will help us to keep our memories alive of the old people. We want to remember them always.'

Meet Shannyn Palmer, from the School of History in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences. Shannyn graduates this month with a PhD after spending four years living in Central Australia working with Anangu, recording oral histories in the Pitjantjatjara language, inspired by Angas Downs pastoral station, located 300 km south west of Alice Springs. She recently returned to Central Australia to present her research to Anangu elders and their descendants.

Shannyn, what are you graduating with in the July graduations?

A PhD in History. My PhD thesis is called '(un)making Angas Downs: a spatial history of a Central Australian pastoral station, 1930-1980'.

What is your favourite spot around the ANU campus and why?

The Shine Dome, because the innovative architecture is inspiring.

Tell us a little about the research you've been doing in Central Australia over the past four years?

Between 2011 and 2015 I lived in Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and undertook fieldwork with Anangu (which is a Pitjantjatjara word meaning 'person' or people). I adopted a 'travelling methodology', visiting various sites on Angas Downs station and beyond, recording oral histories in the Pitjantjatjara language. While I spoke with many Anangu in the wider southwest region of the Northern Territory with a connection to the station, I worked closely with two people who lived much of their lives on Angas Downs - Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong.

My PhD thesis examines the ways in which a desert pastoral station was made - and unmade - by Anangu and others over fifty years across the middle of the twentieth century. Taking a spatial approach to history and memory, my research traces how a cattle station became Country and in doing so grapples with the question of how people make places in the wake colonialism and migration.

How important is it to have been able to assist in creating an archive of oral histories with Anangu?

In seeking to answer the question 'what kind of place is Angas Downs?' and 'how should we see it and understand it as a place?' oral history was of critical importance.

History is experienced, remembered and inscribed quite differently by Aboriginal and other Australians and for much of the twentieth century Aboriginal people figured only marginally in historical writing. My PhD research sought to investigate how I could research and write history that is inclusive of these different perspectives. I also wanted to develop a research practice that could engage with Aboriginal people in the history making process.

What is the significance of this record for Anangu and their future?

When asked what should happen to his stories in the future, Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack said 'I want them to stay on, for my words to remain spoken. People can listen to the old people like me talking and remember the stories of the old days...It will make them happy, as well as all the descendants, all the granddaughters and grandsons'.

When I took the completed thesis back to Anangu in May 2017, Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack's granddaughter, Kathleen Pumpjack, said to me that the stories and photographs contained within were important, because they 'will help us to keep our memories alive of the old people. We want to remember them always.'

What is the most memorable part of your time there?

Travelling the desert in my Toyota Landcruiser with Tjuki Tjukanku Pumpjack and Sandra Armstrong, learning the art of listening, which in turn taught me to see the landscape in a different way and showed me what it means to love a place, in the deepest sense of that word.

If you had one thing you would say to a student thinking about studying in remote Central Australia in a similar project, what would you say?

Think deeply about the ethics and methodology of the research and always listen to people and what they might want/need out of a research project.