Sentimental Education

John Danalis’s memoir, Riding the Black Cockatoo: a true story (Allen & Unwin, 2009) is a narrative of repatriation and reconciliation. The publisher is marketing it as a work of “young adult non-fiction,” and while it will certainly make a good assignment in secondary schools, I think A&U sells Danalis a bit short in doing so. I suspect there are a good many adults, worldwide, who could take more than a few lessons away from this multi-leveled set of family histories.John Danalis is a white urban Queenslander who returned to university as an adult, a father of two children who found that he “had tried lots of things in life, but nothing had stuck.” He decided to become a teacher, and enrolled to study arts and education. He opted to take a course entitled “Indigenous Writing,” and it was there, almost accidentally, that he made a disclosure that altered the course of his life dramatically over the following six months.

For one day, unguardedly, Danalis shared with the class the fact that he had grown up in a home cluttered with his father’s magpie collections that included rusted farm implements, antique bottles, convict-manufactured bricks, and specimens of petrified wood. There was also, on the family mantelpiece, the skull of an Aboriginal man, unearthed by an uncle who lived in rural Victoria. The family, otherwise ignorant of all details about the memento mori, nicknamed it “Mary.”

Danalis’s blurted admission was met with horror on the part of his classmates and produced a sudden and irresistible compulsion in him to set the situation right. The story of how he came to do so, contacting academics and activists, stumbling his way through cultural protocols he never even dreamed existed, penetrating the edges of the Indigenous community, sometimes welcomed, sometimes rebuffed, forms the substance ofRiding the Black Cockatoo.

The book contains more than its share of cringe-making moments. Danalis’s naivete never seems to lessen, his missteps never quite go away and unconscious cultural arrogance persists despite his best efforts to open himself to the unknown and unfamiliar. In some ways, all his simplistic and well-intentioned efforts contribute to the charm of this book, for Danalis never lets himself off lightly. He wants to act well, he believes in the purity of his motives, and yet time and time again he exposes himself as an unconscious transgressor of sensibilities and sensitivities that lie on the far side of the cultural divide. Indeed, he often seems to forget that the cultural divide exists. And so rather than coming off as pious or indignant or morally superior, he persistently portrays himself as well-meaning but clueless. And there is a degree of charming humility to his willingness to look the fool.

His guileless behavior probably accounts for much of his success in contacting the people who can help him return the skull to its native Wamba Wamba country in Victoria. Buoyed by his belief in the righteousness of his mission, he refuses to give in to any obstacle, accepts chastisement when he overreaches, and persists in trying to understand why the theft of the skull is so deeply offensive to all the Aboriginal people he encounters on his journey. He is seduced by a new romanticism, not that of the primitive, but that of the mystical. 

Riding his bicycle along the banks of the Brisbane River one day, he marvels at finding himself in the midst of a startled flock of black cockatoos. Having told us, in a typically unembarrassed moment at the start of the chapter, “[t]he bicycle is my totem,” he perceives the hand of fate in this vision when later in the day he encounters a magnificent cockatoo feather headdress at a Brisbane Writers Festival event. The headdress eventually becomes a key element in the handover of the skull and the cockatoo another kind of totem or spirit guide that watches over him even as he travels down to Wamba Wamba country. There the colonial denuding of the Victorian countryside and the loss of the cockatoo’s habitat becomes for him a metaphor for Aboriginal history, a history that he is trying to compensate for in a way that he understands can be not much better than symbolic, but no less important for that.

And that is a lesson to remember, always, but perhaps best heard again now in this moment between Sorry Day–this year celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Sydney Harbour Bridge Walk–and NAIDOC Week. The Australian, predictably, commemorated the event by reminding us “that there is a long way to travel until the nation can take pride that the gap between black and white Australian is being bridged effectively” (“Walking the walk a decade on,” May 28, 2010). The opinion piece praises not only of Rudd’s Apology but also his pursuit of the Howard government’s Intervention in the Northern Territory and the agenda of Noel Pearson’s Cape York Partnership.

But “bridging the gap” is less than half the story. As Aron Paul wrote this week at newmatilda.com (“Sorry? How did a decade pass like that?,” May 27, 2010),

The so-called “Close the Gap” strategy has been driven not by the principles of reconciliation, but by knee-jerk reactions to statistics. In particular, the Northern Territory Intervention has been a “one size fits all” response in an area where Aboriginal groups and researchers alike have pointed to the need for programs tailored community by community.

In spite of its claims to adhere to evidence-based policy, the Rudd Government has overlooked too much of the available evidence in the race to be seen to be doing something big — much like its predecessor.

There is little evidence, for example, of the efficacy of income management, yet this controversial aspect of the NT Intervention is shortly to be extended to all welfare recipients in the NT. The driver behind this expansion is not evidence that it works. Instead, it is driven by the government’s desire to evade international criticism of the intervention which currently breaches UN anti-discrimination covenants and has been exempted by the previous government from the Racial Discrimination Act. In other words, the amendments to the NT Intervention are simply a public relations exercise, with the costs to be borne by an ever broadening tranche of the population.

Bridging the gap is important, and the work must continue to provide Indigenous Australians with meaningful and fulfilling lives unburdened by poverty and its attendants, violence, drugs, and despair. What John Howard refused to recognize and what Kevin Rudd seems to have forgotten is that symbolic reconciliation is an essential part of bridging the gap and offering hope to Indigenous people–and to white Australians as well.

Writing this week for Unleashed, Shelley Reys responds to the question she says she is often asked: “whether big emotional events like the walks for reconciliation and the apology to the Stolen Generations really made a difference to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people or if they soon fade from the memory and contribute little to our wellbeing” (“Reconciliation: all of us must set the pace” (May 28, 2010).

Reys speaks of the wonder she felt at seeing thousands of people out in the freezing weather on the bridge, at the powerful message of the “ethos of a ‘fair go'” those marchers sent and how it influenced her to join the board of Reconciliation Australia. It gave her a new understanding of what the Referendum of 1967 meant. Similarly, the Apology reached back to inform her feelings about her grandmother’s life story and reached forward to focus her thoughts on what the passing of tradition to her own children and grandchildren means for a woman who was severed from her ancestors’ language by her grandmother’s removal.

For Reys, these symbolic moments can be literally inspirational in the sense of taking a deep breath before marching on, before continuing the fight armed with the knowledge that one is not alone.

National Reconciliation Week is a fine time to recall just how far we’ve come in the last 10 years and perhaps think about the way ahead armed with the knowledge that the best outcomes are achieved by working together. It’s that human interaction between black and white Australians that is fundamental to true reconciliation.

John Danalis has told us a true story of that very real and honest human interaction in Riding the Black Cockatoo. You can hear him talk about his experience in an interviewconducted for ABC Brisbane on March 24, 2010. But buy the book and read the story as well for, practically speaking, Danalis is donating half his royalties to the Wamba Wamba people in support of their ongoing cultural preservation activities. My thanks to Matt and Deborah for alerting me to this stimulating and motivational story.


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