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Aunty Hyllus Maris

Aunty Hyllus Maris was a Wurundjeri, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta woman who was a visionary with a passion for education.

Honour Roll

Aunty Hyllus Maris was the daughter of Selwyn and Geraldine Briggs. She was Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri through her mother and Wurundjeri through her father's blood line. She was fiercely proud of her heritage and her tribal connections on both sides of the family tree.

Hyllus lived with her parents at Cummeragunja, a government Aboriginal Reserve on the banks of the Murray River near Echuca. At a very early age, Aunty Hyllus experienced the struggle for Aboriginal social justice. In 1938 her family took part in the historic Cummeragunja Walk Off, when the residents walked off the Reserve in protest of the poor conditions and harsh treatment by the government-appointed Reserve Manager.

After leaving the reserve the family settled in the Mooroopna/Shepparton area where Hyllus grew up. The family maintained a strong connection with Cummeragunja and Barmah Forest, the heartland of the Yorta Yorta ancestral lands.

Aunty Hyllus' interest and love of the culture was reflected in her activities. She was the Chairperson of the Victorian Council for Aboriginal Culture, which operated from a modest house in George Street, Fitzroy. This Council organised one of the earliest Aboriginal art exhibitions which was held at The Age Gallery. The Council also operated Koori Country, an Aboriginal art and craft gallery in Gordon House in Little Bourke Street. She wanted to ensure that Aboriginal cultural was passed on to Aboriginal children.

Aunty Hyllus became involved in the Aboriginal struggle at an early age and remained committed to it throughout her life. As a member of the National Council of Aboriginal and Islander Women, Hyllus, along with other women prominent in Aboriginal Affairs, was instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service and later the Aboriginal Legal Service. She also assisted in the establishment of similar services in Queensland. She was the first Chair of the Advisory Body on Aboriginal Affairs to the Cain Government and, at the community level, maintained an involvement in the Aborigines Advancement League.

In 1977, Aunty Hyllus was awarded an overseas scholarship through the Ministry for Aboriginal Affairs. She travelled to London to study Social Policy and Community Development under the noted sociologist Richard Hauser. Hyllus had a great respect for all the cultures of the world. She established links with other Indigenous groups and with our Maori brothers and sisters, and there were many cultural exchanges. She was forever proud of her Aboriginal heritage.

On her return to Australia, Aunty Hyllus devoted her energy to the development of an Aboriginal school. In 1980, Hyllus established 'Kurrarook' on a small farm at Yarrambat with Sister Bridgida Nailon from the Brigidine Order and with financial support from the Green Hills Foundation and World Vision. Kurrarook was a pilot project to test the teaching methods and curriculum relevant to the needs of Aboriginal children.

Following the completion of the pilot project the group moved to Frankston where the school was registered as Worawa Aboriginal College to become the first Independent Aboriginal Secondary School in Victoria. In 1985 the College moved to 'Barak Park' Healesville, a 136 acre property which the school now owns and still operates. At Worawa College the curriculum approach was guided by Hyllus and takes account not only of the children's academic and cultural needs but also their physical, moral, and emotional development.

Hyllus co-authored the television series, Women of the Sun, a four part documentary which tells the story of the Aboriginal people from the time of white settlement to contemporary times, from an Aboriginal perspective. The series won the Australian United National Media Peace Prize. In 1983, it won the Australian Writers Guild Drama Award, and the Canadian BANFF Award, an international award for a television script. In that year it also won an award at Cannes.

We honour Aunty Hyllus and acknowledge the contribution local Aboriginal women, now and in the past, have made to education, cultural preservation, community development and the advancement of Aboriginal people.