Former Gunnedah couple Judy and Dave Walters are immensely proud of their grand-daughter Merinda who has just released a Kamilaroi language book which is being used to teach children at Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre.

Although she was born in Darwin, Merinda’s roots are buried deep in Gunnedah – the land of the Gamilaraay where her Nan Judy (Robinson) grew up.

The daughter of Matt and Marsha Walters, Merinda has always been creative and all through her childhood she loved to draw.

“I actually used to be scared of painting because I thought it was too ‘permanent’ and I couldn’t just grab an eraser and start again if I made a mistake,” Merinda said.

“It wasn’t until my last few years in high school that I started painting. I am self-taught and actually dropped out of art in high school to do woodwork because I wanted a challenge – the art teacher at my school wasn’t happy about losing their best student.

“I think word must have spread through the staff room because a few teachers approached me about different art competitions, a few of which I entered and won – mainly the Saint Joseph’s portrait for the new school in Weipa and multiple mural designs around my own school.” 

As she grew older Merinda began to battle with her identity and started to love painting but was shamed because of her skin colour.

“I remember Nan and even some of my uncles saying to me that I had a gift through art and that it was my responsibility as the next generation to carry on our culture and share it with the world,” Merinda said.

“Nan would say to me ‘it doesn’t matter how much milk you put in a cup of tea, it’s still a cup of tea’. 

“I am a proud Kamilaroi Yinnar (Aboriginal woman), I get my Aboriginality from my Dad’s side of the family through my beautiful Nan Judy. 

“I grew up in a small community called Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria. I have always lived very close to my Dad’s side of the family and feel very blessed to have grown up being proud of my Aboriginal heritage. 

“Nan and Pop, my family, and my auntie’s family all lived in Karumba and eventually we all ended up in Cairns together too.” 

Merinda went on to complete a degree in Environmental Science and that’s where the idea for the language book came from. 

“Having grown up in Karumba, I was always outside running amuck in the bush, on the beach, through the saltpans chasing lizards and frogs and just wanting to understand how the world worked – and I think that is what led me to fall in love with science,” Merinda said.

“During my last year at uni, I took a subject called Biological Invasions and for the final assessment piece, we were given complete creative freedom; we just had to pick a target audience and present them with information on any topic covered during the semester. 

“I realised very quickly that I had never seen anything like my book and how much I would have loved it as a kid. I like to think that I’ve always been fairly well versed in environmental processes but I realised that I hadn’t really been taught about invasive species until I was in high school – so I wrote the book for all the young ones like me, growing up in communities, out on country, and wanting to understand what they were seeing so they can understand how to look after it.”

From there the idea became a combination of Merinda’s love of science, art and culture and she used the knowledge of invasive species from her degree to illustrate the book and incorporate Gamilaraay language.

“I used this to both teach myself and to help spread awareness of Gamilaraay, that it is still here and being taught,” Merinda said.

Merinda reached out to Dr Hilary Smith and her team at Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, where the Yaama Gamilaraay! Language Reawakening Program is being taught and the support she received “was monumental in ensuring my little book was accurate and the best resource it could be.”

“I did super well on the assessment piece and many people pushed me into getting it published,” Merinda said.

“A few years later I tracked down Batchelor’s Press and the opportunity arose to partner with Hilary and her team to publish a fully legit resource and now we’re here.

 “My Mum was also a huge support as well, she helped me to start my small business, Mindy’s Art Thawun Wandabaa, which really helped me get my name out there and build my confidence.” 

Hilary Smith said the team at Winanga-Li had been happy to help Merinda with this project as part of its Nguu Gamilaraay (Gamilaraay Books) project funded by the Aboriginal Languages Trust.

“Linguists from the Australian National University provided specialist advice,” Dr Smith said.

“We will be incorporating this book into our language materials themes on animals and country.”

After graduating from university, Merinda joined GHD, an Australian made, global consultancy where she works fulltime as an environmental scientist. 

“Through GHD I was offered the opportunity to create another mural and made my first step into the corporate art space,” Merinda said.

“I’ve continued to paint and create while also doing my best to give back and inspire the next generation. 

“I don’t teach in the formal sense but I frequently visit schools in North Queensland to share my story and inspire First Nations students to undertake career pathways in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics).” 

The daughter of Dulcie and Reg Robinson, Judy grew up in Gunnedah with her siblings Robert, Kim, Kenny, Lorraine, Peter and Henry.

Meanwhile Judy and Dave Walters have settled into retirement high in the hills of Cairns, proud and happy to have their family around them and watch them make their own way in life.

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