PROFESSOR Lyndall Ryan considers herself “fortunate” to have made discoveries in her research that have turned her understanding of the world upside down.
“It’s very hard to have the view you’ve grown up with changed and turned on its head,” Professor Ryan said.
“Saying ‘If I accept this, then everything else changes’ can be very confronting.
“You’re given a responsibility you weren’t expecting to work with this new revelation.
“You go off and think ‘How am I going to deal with this?’ and then you work it out.
“You can’t walk away from it – you have a responsibility to write about it.”
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In Professor Ryan’s case, this has included her world-leading research into massacres.
She has mapped 250 massacres that occurred in Australia between 1788 and 1930 – all but 10 were by white Australians on the Indigenous population.
She is convinced Europeans’ murders of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was planned and motivated by genocide, as opposed to a “rush of blood to the head”.
Professor Ryan has been awarded the Member of the Order of Australia for significant services to higher education, particularly to Indigenous history and women’s studies.
“It was completely unexpected and I feel very humbled by it and kind of quite excited,” she said.
“It’s taken a little while to sink in. It’s a major moment in my life.”
She will retire this year from the University of Newcastle School of Humanities and Social Science’s Centre for the History of Violence, which she helped establish, but will continue her research.
“While I’ve been an activist in some ways, history always beckoned me,” she said.
“I like the comfort of the past, sitting down and sifting through things, asking ‘Why did this person do that? Why did this happen? How did that happen?’ and relate it to the present.”
Professor Ryan studied politics and history and was a teacher before she took a job as a research assistant for historian Manning Clark in Canberra.
She received a post graduate scholarship and wrote a thesis on the history of Tasmanian Aborigines.
“They hadn’t all died out, as I had been brought up to believe. I wanted to show how they had survived the violence of the frontier.”
She then returned to Canberra as a public servant in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet’s first women’s affairs branch.
From there, she joined Griffith University and helped to develop women’s studies and Australian studies as majors in the Bachelor of Arts.
She moved to Flinders University as one of the first permanent women’s studies appointments and stayed to 1998, when she joined Newcastle.
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Her work in women’s studies has included a social and cultural history of the Australian Women’s Weekly and a cross-state comparison of access to abortion.
She returned to her “first love”, Indigenous history, about 15 years ago.
“Australia has a big story to tell about itself and we shouldn’t be shy about doing that,” she said.
“I like to hope my work will re-frame the way we consider Australia’s history.”