Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis is the true story of an Anglo-Australian man’s journey of reconciliation. In adulthood, John began to question his family’s possession of an Aboriginal skull, and embarked on a journey to connect with the traditional owners and return the skull. This non-fiction book (which reads like a novel) is marketed by Allen & Unwin as a book for young adults; however, it had a powerful effect on one of my good friends and colleagues, Viviane Gerardu, who believes all teachers should read it as part of their professional development.
In this ‘review’, I have posed a few questions to Viv about the book’s impact on her personally and how it has enhanced her understanding of teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives:
1. What impact has this book had on your attitude to teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives in the classroom?
After reading the book I felt I had gained a better understanding and awareness of this perspective. I felt excited and comfortable with the knowledge I had gained and was looking forward to using pages from the text in my class room. I thought they would make excellent discussion triggers. Another outcome from reading the book is that we now have the Aboriginal Australia map in our class rooms and when we talk about place in Australia we refer to the map for its Aboriginal name. This came about because in the novel the author writes about the fact that he knew the names of more African and American tribal nations that Australian ones. I really connected with this statement and felt it was important that students learn tribal names and where they are on the Australian map.
2. In what ways has reading this book improved your knowledge and understanding of Indigenous people/issues in Australia?
The book has made me more aware of the intricacies of culture and the relationship of the land of Indigenous people. I had no idea how much protocol was involved in the repatriation process or a smoking ceremony. The book also gave me insight into a white person’s perception of the European invasion of the land and massacre of the Aboriginal population and its comparison with other countries. One comparison was with the Nazis. Another one revolved around street names and its link to famous English explorers “whose expeditions opened the country up to waves of settlers who in turn pushed the original inhabitants from their homelands” (p. 111).
3. How will the book inform your teaching of Indigenous issues?
I have had discussion with my colleagues on the value of the book for teachers and shared numerous pages that could be used in classrooms. We plan to incorporate some into our Australian Identity unit. When we discuss issues in Year 10, we will use pages from the text as a stimulus for class discussions and activities. For example Aboriginal etiquette and culture, about country, the rights of the dead, the Stolen generation, racism, limited Aboriginal voice, perception of the media – there are two great events in the book where the media portrays negative images of Aboriginal actions and how the white author is very upset about this and tries to correct the accounts – how children do not see coloured skin, stereotypes, etc.
4. Would the book be suitable for use in the classroom – if so, in what year/topic/context?
I would love to make this book compulsory reading for all teachers. It is insightful and full of information and knowledge a from a white person’s perspective, yet also includes Aboriginal voices. At one stage the author writes about his experiences on prac where a teacher is having her students draw famous explorers and the Australian bush. He suggests to her that he could do a lesson an Aboriginal art work in which she replies “Well, we aren’t covering any Indigenous units this year, so that wouldn’t really be appropriate.” (p. 221).
There are sections of the book that can be used for all levels but I would suggest that the book is more suitable for Years 11 and 12 as there are references to the author’s past that younger students would not understand. Also the last section is about the author’s problems with depression and I found this detracted from the central idea of the book.
For more information and teacher’s notes: