Riding the Black Cockatoo

John Danalis

Riding the Black Cockatoo
Allen & Unwin
1 June 2009

Riding the Black Cockatoo

John Danalis

John Danalis was doing a teacher training course at university, as an older student, and decided to take a unit called Indigenous Writing. During one seminar he revealed that he had grown up with an Aboriginal skull (nicknamed ‘Mary’) on the family mantelpiece, a gift from his uncle to his collector father. The horrified reaction of his fellow students caused John to ask a few questions - where did his uncle find it, who was ‘Mary’ (a man, as it turned out), and was there a group that might want to claim the skull. By a series of amazing coincidences - almost as if some spirit was driving events - and thanks to his own faith and determination, John made connections with people who could help him in his quest, with the result that Mary was ceremonially handed over to the rightful owners, the Wamba Wamba people of northern Victoria, and later buried in Wamba Wamba country.

As a result of the processes he went through and the people he met, John Danalis put his upbringing and assumptions under scrutiny and exposed his own stereotyped thinking and forged undreamed-of connections with Aboriginal people - an exhilarating but testing process. This book, then, is one man’s reconciliation journey.

A sidelight: during a bike ride, John was followed by a red-crested black cockatoo - an almost unheard-of bird in Brisbane. He later found out that this bird was the totem for the Wamba Wamba - just one of the coincidences referred to above. He also happened to see a headdress made from black cockatoo feathers at a literary festival - and ended up using it at the handover ceremony for Mary. Finally, there was a red-and-black connection between his father, a traditionalist rather sceptical of his son’s activities, and a Wamba Wamba elder, Gary Murray: his father barracked fiercely for Essendon football team in Melbourne and Gary’s son was a well-known Essendon player.

Another sidelight: at the handover ceremony, elder Gary Murray wore a wonderful possum-skin cloak with story designs etched into it. We have commissioned a similar cloak depicting the story of Riding the Black Cockatoo, to be used by John Danalis in his promotion work and especially in schools.


John Danalis grew up with an Aboriginal skull sitting on the mantelpiece of his familys home. This is the story of the journey he undertakes when he decides to return the skull to its traditional owners. This mission has a profound effect on his life, as he begins to question why the skull, ‘Mary’, was in their home, where it came from, and who it should belong to. He quickly learns that returning the skull is not going to be a straightforward task.

Anyone interested in modern Aboriginal society will find this moving and intensely personal story of reconciliation fascinating.

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