Review Blog

Jun 10 2009

Riding the black cockatoo by John Danalis

cover image

Allen and Unwin, 2009. ISBN 9781741753776
This true story starts with John, a mature age white Australian, taking a token 'indigenous writing' course as part of his university studies in 2005. In one of his tutorials, he inadvertently blurts out; 'That's nothing: I grew up with an Aboriginal skull on my mantelpiece'. The shocked reactions from his fellow classmates cause ramifications that take John, and his family, on a long journey of introspection.
Growing up in the 60's and 70's John had never thought to ask why an Aboriginal skull, named 'Mary' was displayed on the family mantelpiece. With amazing honesty John recalls the prejudices, not only the general ones of the times, but of those of his parents. He states that'do gooders were tolerated. Abo-lovers were despised,' and that interaction with aboriginals was a one way mirror. One looked but didn't interact. Such was the insidious nature of racism in Australia at the time.
John's decision to return 'Mary' from Melbourne to her Wamba Wamba home near Swan Hill took him on a long self-discovery tour of Aboriginal history and culture. His recollections are riveting and educate the reader equally well. He examines how institutions like museums often regarded aboriginal remains as trophies and were reluctant to hand them back. We learn that aboriginal people are often reported falsely in the media. Even on the two dollar coin a generic aboriginal caricature is used, not a specific individual, as happens when white people are depicted. The patience, generosity and forgiving attitude of most aborigines is illustrated again and again.
The ceremonial handover of the skull reconciles past and present for John and his parents. His father said afterwards, 'I've had to rethink 60 years of attitude'. John becomes somewhat obsessed with chasing more information on the aboriginal culture and this leads to some personal problems. His journey is well summarised in the statement, 'you're just a whitefella who's learnt to listen.'
This unique book should be required reading in all upper secondary classes, and especially Australian history. Teacher's notes are available via the publisher's website. Australians who grew up in the 1960-70's will also find great interest in this book.
Kay Haarsma

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