Curriculum Vital

    Riding the Black Cockatoo
    By John Danalis

    Lots of kids have felt it: a dark reluctance to invite a friend back to your house. You might be worried about your parents' propensity for humiliation. Or perhaps you've become acutely aware of some material shortcoming. For Queensland local John Danalis, though, the problem is a great deal more morbid. For as long as John can remember, the mantelpiece in his parents' living room has been adorned with the skull of an Aborigine affectionately known as Mary.

    What's embarrassing for the now grown-up John is the sudden realisation that he's never considered Mary as a source of shame. Rather, he'd always regarded the skull, dyed golden by many coats of lacquer, as just another oddity amongst his father's enormous collection of artefacts. He hadn't even seen anything odd in the fact that 'Mary' was actually a man. Then one day in 2005, at the age of 40, John casually mentions Mary to his classmates during an Indigenous Writing seminar at Brisbane University. The horrified silence that follows sends John on a journey from white Australia's colonial past to the colourful and fragile world of modern Aborigines.

    As John soon discovers, returning an Aborigine skull is fraught with logistical and emotional pitfalls. John did in fact have the good sense to ask his mother to hide the skull a few years ago when she began babysitting his daughters, which means the first step is to wade through his parents’ cluttered basement. Once re-exhumed, Mary forces John to confront a story that is long, harrowing and, in all senses of the word, dark:

    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 the 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 pups for straying too far from the litter. That's how it was when I grew up.

    John is writing of the 1970s. As incredible as it may sound to a modern reader (even more incredible than the idea of having an Aborigine skull on your mantelpiece), at that time Australian federal and state officials were still forcibly removing Aborigine children from their parents’ care and resettling them in white communities. The victims of this practise became known as the Stolen Generation. ‘There is not doubt’, writes John,

    that some of the motives for the forced removal of children were honourable, but when you read the many stories of the way culture and language were crushed in the institutions, hostels and missions, it is not hard to conclude that the policy was first and foremost an orchestrated program of cultural and spiritual genocide.

    Mary was born just before the removals began, but did manage to acquire another ‘whitefella’ import, syphilis. This ‘great pox’ rotted Mary’s brain and left his skull with telltale cracks and lesions. “The poor wretch would have been quite insane when he died,” says John’s dad, a man who has limited stage time in this drama but undergoes a profound change of attitude.

    Having died from a tragically common ailment, Mary is at least given the rare privilege of a dignified burial. As John discovers on his bewildering and uplifting journey to the appointed resting place, Mary’s skull is just a drop in the great ocean of Aboriginal remains scattered across white Australia and the wider world. Unlike Mary, though, the vast majority are afforded neither care nor compassion by their owners. “I’ve had skulls returned with all sorts of right-wing neo-Nazi shit written all over them,” Gary Murray tells John. “People have used the top parts for ashtrays and mulling bowls – I even saw one wearing a rasta hat with a big fat joint sticking out of its mouth.”

    Despite his Occidental name, Gary is an elder of the Wamba Wamba Nation, an Aborigine tribe that once flourished on both sides of the Murray, the vast river that today forms the border between the states of New South Wales and Victoria. Before European colonists arrived in the late 18th century, there were over 200 such “mobs” in Australia speaking an equal number of languages. Today, Gary and his colleagues fight to preserve the very little that remains of this cultural and linguistic diversity. Repatriating the remains of their long-lost kinsfolk is a crucial part of the struggle.

    At times the combination of past atrocities, present indignities and the unexpected warmth of the Wamba Wamba Nation is too much for John. As the day of the handover ceremony approaches the emotion wells further:

    We strode with purpose; we were Mary’s minions now, doing the earthly things required to get his waylaid soul back to the spirit world. We were being reeled in. Our path seemed energised, lit up like a runway that only we could see.

    With Mary back in his native soil, John decides he wants to continue on the path of enlightenment and justice. Unsure of how to proceed, he asks the advice of Bob Weatherall, a whiskered veteran and repatriation specialist of the Kamilaroi Nation.

    ‘You have helped,’ Bob replied a little wearily… in a way that suggested he’d been confronted with over-enthusiastic white converts-to-the-cause before. ‘You need to understand that there’s a feeling in our community that we need to help ourselves.’

    This is one of many occasions when John is forced to rethink his preconceptions of ‘Black’ Australia. These lessons range from the amusing realisation that modern Aborigines have been touched by globalisation (he is surprised, for example, when Yorta Yorta songman Jason Tamiru expresses a fondness for Thai food: ‘What was I expecting the man to eat, witchetty grubs?’) to perhaps the most important lesson of all, that like any population of Homo sapiens, the Aborigines have their heroes and their villains. ‘A friend of mine once commented,’ he writes towards the end of the book, ‘that one of the stumbling blocks to Reconciliation in Australia is that too many people believe that all blackfellas are mystical and that all whitefellas are mean.’

    The journey to Reconciliation in Australia (and elsewhere) is so important, and the story of Mary’s return so interesting and so moving, that one can just about look beyond the fact that Mr Danalis, for all his enthusiasm, lacks a certain adroitness when it comes to writing. You may have already noticed his fondness for semi-colons; he is similarly liberal with exclamation marks (‘I knew the names of more African and American tribal nations than Australian!’), which, while understandable, dilutes much of the gravitas. He’s also partial to the words ‘otherworldly’ and ‘literally.’ The former is, again, forgivable in the circumstances (though twice in consecutive pages is a tad excessive by any standard), but I’m afraid there is no excuse for, ‘As I entered the first section [of the museum] my heart literally jumped for joy.’ (And please don’t claim that ‘literally’ can now mean ‘figuratively’: if a word can become an antonym of itself our language is doomed.) These and other habits are borne of a passion that tends to hamper rather than enhance the prose.

    I hope these criticisms do not upset Mr Danalis (who suffered mild depression in the lull that followed Mary’s repatriation) or deter him from writing further books on the relationship between Aboriginal and Occidental Australia. Riding the Black Cockatoo is ultimately a fascinating and urgent story for Australia, the Commonwealth and the world.


    Related products and pages:

    Born in Africa: The Quest for the Origins of Human Life, by Martin Meredith