Riding the Black Cockatoo

Riding the Black Cockatoo

by John Danalis
     
 

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All through his growing-up years, John Danalis's family had an Aboriginal skull on the mantelpiece; yet only as an adult after enrolling in an Indigenous Writing course did he ask his family where it came from and whether it should be restored to its rightful owners. This is the compelling story of how the skull of an Aboriginal man, found on the banks of the Murray

Overview

All through his growing-up years, John Danalis's family had an Aboriginal skull on the mantelpiece; yet only as an adult after enrolling in an Indigenous Writing course did he ask his family where it came from and whether it should be restored to its rightful owners. This is the compelling story of how the skull of an Aboriginal man, found on the banks of the Murray River more than 40 years ago, came to be returned to his Wamba Wamba descendants. It is a story of awakening, atonement, forgiveness, and friendship. "It is as if a whole window into Indigenous culture has blown open, not just the window, but every door in the house," says John Danalis. Part history, part detective story, part cultural discovery and emotional journey, this is a book for young and old, showing the transformative and healing power of true reconciliation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The story is an important one and surely will find widespread classroom use."  —

Booklist

School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—While taking a course in Indigenous Writing, 40-year-old Danalis realized that the Aboriginal skull that sat on his family's mantle for years was morally wrong. He takes a hard look at the stereotypes and racism of his childhood and Australia as a whole and his own misconceptions of Native Australian culture and traditions. What follows is his account of first figuring out how and where to return it, and then the bureaucracy involved, the government's horrifying lack of respect for these people, and the appreciation and ceremony on the part of the Native people when it was returned. This memoir strikes the perfect balance between being informative and giving extraordinary insight into Aboriginal culture. The journey to take "Mary" home is long and winding, but it's an eye-opening ride for both writer and reader.—Saleena L. Davidson, South Brunswick Public Library, Monmouth Junction, NJ

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781741763560
Publisher:
Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date:
04/01/2010
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
276
File size:
717 KB
Age Range:
13 Years

Read an Excerpt

Riding the Black Cockatoo


By John Danalis

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2009 John Danalis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74176-356-0


CHAPTER 1

Have you ever blurted something out in conversation, and a nanosecond later wished that you'd kept your trap shut? Well, that's the way my family secret came out – blurt! And once my secret was out, it just sat for all to see, like a bright blue jellyfish washed up by a king tide, stranded between the double glare of sun and sand, wishing it could wobble back into the ocean and glide inconspicuously once more among a billion other jellyfish secrets.

{ BRISBANE, LATE AUGUST–EARLY NOVEMBER 2005 }

This story goes way back, further back than any of us can imagine. But it became part of my family's dreaming just before I was born, 40 years ago. Like a distant storm flickering across the horizon, this story crept across the landscape patiently; it knew just when to announce itself, just when to hit. And when this story first began to rattle my windows I was a man – or perhaps just a boy – lost, still trying to find my path.

I'd tried lots of things in life, but nothing had stuck. I still hadn't found what I was meant to do, what I was supposed to be. I had a wife now, and two daughters who seemed to be blowing out birthday candles every other Sunday. I felt time was ebbing away. So I enrolled at university as a mature-age student and began a double degree in arts and education; I was – to everyone's great relief – soon to become a teacher. And it was there that I enrolled in a class called 'Indigenous Writing'. This class was a departure from the other subjects I'd been studying. I'd signed up for Indigenous Studies units in previous semesters but always chickened out at the last minute and changed to something 'safer'. I was unsettled by so many things surrounding Aboriginal Australia; I felt ashamed of my own ignorance of their culture, I felt guilty and dirty over our theft of their country, and deep down, perhaps I was afraid that they possessed 'something' that if unleashed might upset the nice orderly nature of my white world. But I knew that I had to learn about Aboriginal culture and history – after all, I was studying to become a teacher, and an understanding of Australia's traditional owners seemed to me as important as anything I might teach in maths or science. So Indigenous Writing seemed a soft way in, and besides, the unit covered indigenous writing from all over the world, so it wouldn't be too confronting, too uncomfortable, too Aboriginal.

It was a small class of about fifteen, and the discussions meandered all over the place like a long, winding creek. Our lecturer was one of the sharpest people I had ever met, and the reading list she prepared read like the itinerary from an adventure holiday company: Inuit short stories, nineteenth-century anti-colonial novellas, Native American chants, desert poetry. It was like sliding into a warm bath with a stack of National Geographics close at hand. Each week we got together for three hours to discuss the readings, setting off like well-fed, middle-class adventurers into the literary landscapes of 'the Other'. What a strange term, 'the Other'; to white people it conjures up images of figures lurking in the shadows, of big round eyes peeping out from the jungle edge, and in a strange way that is exactly what it refers to – people living outside the mainstream. Yet the term was originally coined by persons of colour (particularly coloured women) as a way of discussing the cultural dominance of mainstream society and the methods used to mark them as inferior. Over time the term has been embraced by other groups whose genetics, sexual orientation and lifestyles defy convention; the sort of people who baffle, shock, antagonise or titillate 'straight' society. But most commonly the term is still used by Indigenous people as a way of understanding how 'Otherness' has been forced upon them. 'The Other'; it was a buzz-phrase our little group deployed with uncomfortable regularity – as if any of us could ever truly understand what it meant to be shoved to the margins of society. We were all white, and most of us had similar world views; it was a caricature of a liberal arts class, in a safe, cosy environment. Of course, what the class really needed was half a dozen Indigenous people – or even one. Now that would have taken the discussions into some interesting territory! Besides our worldly lecturer, I don't think many of us in the room knew – really knew – a person of colour. In this class, the closest we came to 'the Other' was the occasional visit from an extremely angry young woman who felt the need to remind us regularly that she was 'queer' as well as thoroughly pissed off with the world. A heavy vapour trail of marijuana followed her into class and everywhere else she went on campus. But she seemed just as much of a cliché as we were. We all had the luxury to buy into whichever off-the-rack look we felt best projected our self-image: tree-hugger, tree-cutter, flag-waver, flag-burner – we all had the opportunity to choose. Cocooned in the cottonwool of white-bread suburbia, we were all quite comfortable and, I suspect, quite numb.


{ 14 SEPTEMBER 2005 }

After many weeks of sampling the outer reaches of Indigenous literature, the class finally got around to discussing 'the Australian situation'. We were sitting, as usual, around a long table sipping tea and coffee. It was very informal and relaxed, a class reminiscent of the 'good old days' when universities were places of inquiry and exploration rather than the biscuit -cutter conveyor belts of vocational training they tend to be now. I had scurried in late, but not very late; being a mature-age student I was generally punctual and studious (I'd been ejected from two campuses some 20 wild years ago and was determined not to blow it this time). As I took a seat, my ears pricked up; our lecturer was halfway through a confessional about her family's dark past. She recounted the brutal divide between the whites and Indigenous peoples of her childhood town in northern New South Wales. Aborigines fulfilling community service duties, usually as punishment for minor offences, were allotted the most humiliating and disgusting tasks by the community's police and menfolk. Often they were forced to work naked, sometimes before jeering onlookers with cameras. As she began to revisit the degradations and humiliations that these men and women had been subjected to, our lecturer's voice tapered off into an embarrassed silence, as if she'd already said too much, as if she'd already betrayed her bloodline. But she didn't need to go into detail; the weight that clawed at her face and shoulders finished the story and hinted at an upbringing burdened by unresolved memories. She would later share with me that she had kept closeted away, safe from her father's bigoted gaze, a photograph of her childhood tennis idol Evonne Goolagong.

Then came my announcement. Perhaps I said it to divert some of the attention away from the rattlings of my lecturer's family skeletons; I also suspect I said it partly out of the desire to go one better – mature -age students can be terrible know-alls and I was no exception.

'Well; I grew up with an Aboriginal skull on my mantelpiece.'

I said the words with a sort of worldly swagger, somehow expecting the announcement to impress my younger classmates. I might as well have unzipped my pants and flopped my penis onto the table – everyone turned and stared at me with a mixture of incredulousness, disgust and horror. My worldliness withered. There was silence; and in that seven -second eternity my childhood was teleported from the Polaroid feel-good fuzziness of the 1970s into the cold, hard glare of the year 2005.

And then came the chorus. 'You what? You have a what in your living room?'

'No, no, not my living room,' I backpedalled furiously; of course I was too enlightened to permit such a heinous display in my own home. 'It was on my family's mantelpiece, in the family home, where I grew up, and it's not as bad as you think, things were different back then ...'

Now it was time for my voice to taper off. A different kind of silence filled the room. It was a silence accompanied by a collective unblinking stare, and I sat at its epicentre.

'Some —' my voice squeaked, 'someone – an uncle, actually – gave it to my father when I was a baby. I grew up with it, it was always there. Dad collected stuff, it just sat up on the wall unit with all his other bits and pieces; old stuff, rifles, wild boar tusks, deer antlers —'

The eyes grew wider.

'Guns?' asked one girl, almost tearfully. 'You mean this Aboriginal skull is displayed with guns, like a trophy?'

'And pigs' tusks?' added another.

'Country people, my family are country people, we grew up with guns. And it's not what it sounds like. Dad's a veterinarian, he's into stuff like that, he's even got two Siamese piglets floating preserved in a fish tank full of formaldehyde. The skull was a scientific curio, not a trophy.'

But it was too late; I had waded so far out into the gloop that every word I uttered just mired me deeper. I was up to my bottom lip in it. My beloved childhood home sounded like a cross between Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the trophy cave from Wolf Creek.

'Is it still there now?' asked the teary-eyed girl.

'No-o-o,' I answered with unconvincing reassurance. 'I asked Mum to put it away years ago, when she started babysitting my daughters. I didn't want them spooked out.'

'Spooked out'; what an understatement! Eventually the eyes turned away and the discussion moved on. And there I sat, utterly deflated. Over the years I could have filled a hot-air balloon with my bluster about equality, justice and the brotherhood of man; but here was this terrible truth – this secret shard – that brought my seemingly normal childhood and world view crashing back to terra firma.


* * *

I can't recall the first time I saw – I mean, consciously recognised – an Aboriginal person. Children, after all, don't naturally differentiate between people of colour, it is adults who hand out the labels, generation after generation. 'Australian Aborigine' sounds so anthropological, almost zoological – like 'Australian marsupial'. Yet in a strange way that was how I was brought up to see Indigenous Australians, as some sort of museum exhibit; an oddity that sat somewhere on the evolutionary scale between Og the Caveman and a brave white fellow in a pith helmet called Rupert. I was taught that it was acceptable to marvel at the Aborigine in his natural setting – preferably in the most distant corner of a far-flung desert, where he could launch boomerangs or sit in the shade of a brigalow tree to his heart's content. We admired his hardiness and his healthy, gleaming, 'Yes, boss' smile as he looked up to the camera – as long as he stayed on the far side of the horizon. Like the kangaroo – iconic in the wild but troublesome in our paddock – Aboriginal contact tended to upset our idea of the order of things. Indigenous people disturbed the neat fencelines of our logic; they messed with our empirical minds. For their collective mind seemed like a mysterious storehouse stacked high with what the modern world considered superstitious mumbo-jumbo and redundant knowledge. Only now are we awakening to an understanding that this 60 000-year-old storehouse holds answers to questions we have just begun to ask. The custodians of this storehouse possessed a playful ability to live in the moment that both baffled and annoyed the hell out of us. But of course our biggest bugbear was the colour of their skin.

Black. The negative images embedded in our language go back centuries; black is the night, black is my soul, burnt black, eyes black with rage, black heart. To a white boy growing up in the safe, suburban 1970s, 'black' conjured up the beating native war drums of Saturday-afternoon Tarzan movies. It meant cannibal cooking pots, violated white missionary women, and spears thrust deep into the unsuspecting backs of noble explorers. It meant voodoo, shrunken heads, witchdoctors and inexhaustible armies of fanatical Zulu warriors. As a small child I was chased down the jungle tracks of my imagination by every black cliché imaginable; a Negroid Frankenstein stitched together from Hollywood and Boy's Own Annuals. African, Caribbean, Islander, Australian; they were all tarred with the same evil brush. Black was black, and even in a suit or a doctor's gown, I was warned, a spear-chucker lurked just below the surface. As I type these recollections I cringe at how monstrously offensive such stereotypes are. In fact, I can't believe I'm writing this at all. Part of me wants to skip to the next chapter; it would be so much easier for all of us. But if this story is going to make any sense, it has to include everything; I need you, my reader, to peek into the freight cars full of baggage I've been dragging behind me all these years. Of course, none of this will be big news to Indigenous folk!

As a child, I viewed Black Australia through the same smudged lens that I imagine a lot of other people looked through. It was a lens that allowed us a one-way intimacy, like those one-way windows in police line-up rooms; we gawked and scrutinised without getting up close. And if we didn't like what we saw, or if what we saw made us uncomfortable, we could turn away, turn the page, switch the channel or change the subject. Not that the subject of Black Australia came up that often. To show too much interest in Aboriginal affairs aroused suspicion; to speak in their defence amounted to betrayal. Australians then didn't much like do -gooders; they seemed to somehow threaten our way of life, our collective values and our right to a good time. But if do-gooders were tolerated, 'Abo-lovers' were despised. We appropriated the term 'Nigger-lover' from the Americans and re-jigged it to suit our language. And like the Americans, we used the term to keep 'our own kind' in line – just as a bitch nips at its young pups for straying too far from the litter. That's how it was when I grew up.

It's hard to imagine just how straitjacketed by conformity most Australians were only three or four decades ago. Take beer, for instance. In the 1970s, 99 per cent of Queensland beer drinkers drank Fourex – and full strength at that. Walking into a party or barbecue with another brand like Foster's or Carlton (there wasn't much to choose from back then) immediately branded you an outsider. If you were visiting from overseas or had recently migrated from the southern states it was forgivable, you were let off with a mild ribbing. But if you were a local and actually preferred the taste of that southern swill to Fourex, you were immediately branded by the phalanx of men huddled around the barbecue as someone of questionable social standing – an eccentric, an academic or a poofter, and certainly not one to be trusted with the ladies. That was beer! It seems unbelievable now. So just imagine what it was like to buck the social norms governing race relations in this country. Of course there were brave souls who did, but I never met one.

When the subject of Aboriginal Australia came up during my childhood, which was rarely, it was usually in the form of third-hand stories or jokes. The stories went like this: 'A mate of my cousin's works somewhere out west, and he swears that this is true; when the blackfellas run out of petrol they push their government-funded Toyotas off the side of the track and set fire to them – too lazy or too stupid to refill 'em. They just wait until they get another government vehicle and do the same thing all over again. Useless bastards, all of 'em, and we're footin' the bill.'

The other men around the barbecue, bar or lunchroom would all shake their heads in disgust and utter statements like 'Useless black pricks'.

Then, without fail, one of the more sensitive souls in the group would roll out this chestnut: 'Trouble is, the poor bastards are cavemen. I hate to say this, but they would've been better off if we'd wiped 'em all out.'

I heard that statement many times over the years and I could never help but wonder, 'Hang on, just how could an extinct race be better off?'

But of course I never asked the question out loud.

Then there were the jokes; there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of Abo jokes doing the rounds of the schoolyards and campfires of my youth. We often brought these gags from home; and the fact that Uncle Bazza had told them around the table at Sunday lunch seemed to legitimise their craven humour. Deep down I had an inkling that something was amiss and my stomach often twisted in guilty discomfort, but it was always easier to laugh along. These jokes were never really funny and they connected with the mean streak that lurks within us all, the mean streak that left unchecked can spread like a toxic bloom. There was one particular joke that stepped beyond meanness. This joke began circulating during the 1980s Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This was a major inquiry into the disproportionate number of Aboriginal men who were committing suicide or dying while in police watch-houses and prisons. I found this joke so disturbing that every time I heard it, the seconds seemed to slow down as I waited for an adult – anyone – to say, 'Now listen here, that's not funny! Those dead men have grieving mothers.' But no one said a thing, least of all me. Another memory, another shard for my hot-air balloon.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis. Copyright © 2009 John Danalis. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

John Danalis is the author and illustrator of Bath Monster, Dog 37, and Uncle Lou's Tattoos. He has illustrated numerous other titles, including Licking Lizards, Girl in the Cave, and Loku and the Shark Attack. Boori Monty Pryor is the coauthor of Flytrap and Njunjul the Sun.

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