Darwin, NT

jamesg_4-jpgJames Gaykamangu has been authorised by the Gupapuyngu clan, with the full sanction of the Yirrtija moiety in Ngarra, to bring understanding to non-Aboriginal Australians about the Madayin Yolngu system of law. In doing this James necessarily works with non-Aboriginal legal systems. To date he has sought and received support and collaboration with the Northern Territory Department of Justice, Chief Justice of the Northern Territory Supreme Court, the Honourable Trevor Riley, the (then) Speaker of the Northern Territory, the Honourable Jane Aaggard, the (then) Leader of the Opposition, the Honourable Terry Mills, the Law Society of the Northern Territory and the (then) President of the Law Society, Mr Matthew Storey, Charles Darwin University and in particular its Law School under the leadership of Professor Les McCrimmon and the Northern Territory Law Journal and its editor, Mr Cameron Ford. James Gaykamangu is an Associate of the Charles Darwin University Law School’s Customary Law Project.

He has worked for the Aboriginal interpreter service for 10 years, interpreting in a medical and legal capacity and recruiting, training and mentoring new interpreters. He has worked in both Katherine and Darwin courts helping those in trouble with the law to understand their situation, and look after their family and affairs. He has also delivered presentations on domestic and family violence and Aboriginal customary law through the NT Law Society, Charles Darwin University and the Departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet and Children’s Services, as well as with NT training groups and Correctional Services. He has travelled to Alice Springs for the Indigenous world conference, Brisbane University and to East Timor presenting on Aboriginal customary law.

He is skilled in both Balanda and Yolngu law (Gunapipi and Ngarra Law) and has worked to make sure people correctly observe the rules of both systems, and do not use ceremony grounds as a way to escape or avoid their problems in the Balanda courts. This helps to people to be aware of their responsibilities to both systems of law, to keep both systems strong so they may work together in issues of public concern.

He has worked with the Larrakia Nation Aboriginal Corporation on research as well as with the Northern Institute and School of Law at Charles Darwin University delivering lectures on Aboriginal customary law. He has also worked with Dr Daniel Kelly to train new recruits for the NT Police, teaching them to work in culturally appropriate ways in remote communities. He has also appeared on television for crime stoppers, helping to keep people in the community safe. He has worked in the Department of Justice, Community Policy and Safety, travelling to remote communities speaking with people about the use of mobile phones and cyber safety.  He visits homeless people in the Long Grass and talks to them about limiting their drinking habits and how to live a better life; letting them know that drinking everyday is not the way to look after them.

Mr Gaykamangu is the author of two books: Ngarra Law: Aboriginal Customary Law from Arnhem Land (2012) which is about Aboriginal customary law, and Striving to Bridge the Chasm: My Cultural Learning Journey (2013) which tells the story of his learning journey from a young boy in Milingimbi with inherited traditional leadership, to a Senior Elder supporting his people through mainstream legal systems. However, at the end of the day Mr Gaykamangu also likes to sit and work on his artwork, traditional paintings on canvas which people see and ask him to paint. Through all this work, his vision is to help white people and black people work together in the Northern Territory so together to develop our country as a nation.

Mr. James Gaykamangu, a well-respected employee of the Department of the Attorney-General and Justice, is the proud recipient of the 2013 Top End NAIDOC Elder Award, which was handed down in an awards ceremony in Darwin in July 2013.

James’ claim to the award centres on his proven ability and commitment as an inspirational leader and role model to the younger generations.  As a senior custodian of Ngarra (traditional) law and a respected elder, James plays an important role in teaching young people about Aboriginal culture and traditional ways.

Ngarra law underpins the social order of the Yolngu people; it is passed on from generation to generation and is an essential element in the initiation ceremony for young boys.  James uses a ‘two-way’ approach to teach young people about right from wrong.  He teaches young people about Balanda (white man’s) law through traditional stories, paintings, song lines and dance ceremonies.  Through this ‘two way’ approach James also teaches non-Aboriginal Australians about traditional Aboriginal customary law.

In addition to his role as a respected elder, James is an accredited interpreter.  He assists Aboriginal people though the Court system including Court procedures, bail conditions and Court testimonies.  He also works extensively as an interpreter for Aboriginal people including helping people to understand medical issues as well as conveying important public messages to Aboriginal communities.  James Gaykamangu is a senior Aboriginal elder in terms of age, status and respect.

He works tirelessly for his people bringing law and order to communities and guiding the younger generations. James is also an extremely talented artist, teacher and linguist. He uses his skills for the betterment of his people and is a highly valued member of the Northern Territory Public Service.  The AGD commends James Gaykamangu on this important recognition, and for his continuing hard work in the justice



  • Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet: Guest Speaker on ‘The Constitution and authority and change in Madayin (Aboriginal Law of Arnhem Land)
  • NT Training Group: Guest Trainer on Domestic Violence (two trainings)


  • International Indigenous World Conference, University of Queensland, Brisbane.  Paper presented on Aboriginal Customary Law.
  • International Conference on Indigenous Law, Dili, East Timor.  Paper presented on Domestic Violence in Aboriginal Customary Law.
  • Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet: Guest Speaker on Aboriginal Customary Law and Constitutional Recognition
  • NT Police: Guest Speaker with Dr Danial Kelly on Aboriginal Law
  • Advisory Committee Member for Australian Research Council Linkage Grant project “Telling it like it is in Darwin”.
  •  Published my autobiography entitled “Striving to Bridge the Chasm: My Cultural Learning Journey”


  • National Indigenous Customary Law Conference, Alice Springs.    Paper Presented on Aboriginal Customary Law
  • Guest lecturer, Law School, Charles Darwin University.


  • Presentation of a “Ngarra law” Document and creating a painting. Describing the Yolngu Legal System to Darwin Magistrates Court. Painting is currently hanging in the Magistrates Court Darwin.


  • Have been commissioned and delivered painting artworks to ALPA Stores, AIS, Magistrates Court Darwin, Office of Local Government NT


  • National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters Ltd (NAATI) accreditation as a Level 4 ‘Professional Interpret in the English and Djambarrpuyngu (Yolngu matha) languages (both language directions)’
  •  Achieved NTER Consultation Certificate in Aboriginal Interpreting Service


  • Certificate II Train the Trainer, Charles Darwin University
  • Graduated: Graduate Diploma Management and Administration,  Batchelor Institute
  • Graduate Certificate in Management and Administration, Batchelor Institute
  • Received Post-graduate Award,  Batchelor Institute
  • Diploma of Interpreting (School of Linguistics), Batchelor College
  • Development Education Program,  Australian Federation of International Credit Union Development (AFICUD), La Trobe University Sydney
  • Diploma of Teaching, Batchelor College


  • Associate Diploma of Teaching (Aboriginal School), Batchelor College
  • President, Student Representative Council
  • Deputy Chairperson/Student Representative, Batchelor College Council
  • Assistant Teacher – Grade 2 Certificate


  • Certificate in Translating and Interpreting, Northern Territory University.
  • Management Course, Nungalinya College, Dhupuma College
  • Teaching Assistant Course, Kormilda College
  • Aboriginal Teacher’s Course, Batchelor College
  • Biblical Studies, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane
  • Studied Missionary Scholarship
  • Mechanics Certificate, Technical Trade Course




  • Milingimbi Community School
  • Taught and worked in Homeland School for 18 months and for three years in Primary School.
  • Milingimbi Council, Council Secretary – Required organising and co-ordinating the Council, correspondence, agenda and minutes.
  • Set up Dipirri Outstation and established Homeland School.

1978 – 1996

  • Milingimbi Mission School – Worked as Assistant Teacher, which included teaching Post Primary Students.  Two year duration.
  • Local Field Officer, Responsible for East, West & South Western Arnhemland. Victoria and Batchelor regions
  • Northern Territory Parks & Wildlife Advisory Committee, Member representing the Northern and Central Land Councils.
  • Northern Land Council, Special Project Officer. This position required to communicate and consult between Government bodies and Aboriginal organisations in relation to mining leases and other mining activities under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act.
  • Community Advior – Advised Aboriginal people on issues surrounding Aboriginal land, mining and land leases…..etc
  • Northern Land Council – Senior Field Officer. Based in Nhulunbuy to establish the Northern Land Council Office.   Managing a staff of four, I was responsible for programming of, and reporting on staff activities and visits to communities.  Also I liaised with Traditional Land Owners and people affected regarding mining leases on their lands.

1992 – 1999

  • Chairperson, Milingimbi Community Council. This is a voluntary position requiring the discrete  and balanced approach to the Council, community and administrative matters
  • Arnhemland Progress Association. Worked as a Community Development Education Officer
  • Aboriginal Top End Bush Broadcasting Association. Member – representing the interests of the Milingimbi community.
  • Darwin High School, Indigenous Support Officer
  • Nungalinya College, Teaching Darwin Legal Services


  • Legal and Medical Interpreting at Royal Darwin Hospital, Darwin
  • Magistrates Court & Supreme Court, Prisons and Police interviews for North East Arnhemland people

2008 – 2009

  • Indigenous Court Liaison Officer, Support Services, Magistrates Court Katherine.


  • Northern Regional Manager, Aboriginal Interpreter Service


  • AIS Interpreters Support Development Officer – recruiting, training and mentoring new staff. Received Commendation for 10 years of service to the AIS.


  • Community Liaison Officer, Department of Justice, NT Government.


  • Indigenous Court Liaison Officer, Magistrates Court, Darwin



Long Neck Turtles and Rainbow Snakes by James Gaykamangu

This painting depicts the story about the longneck turtles and rainbow snakes.  These four ceremonial stories belong to my grandmother’s ceremony, the Balmawuy/Ganalbingu clans.  The ceremonial longneck turtles are located between the Glyde and Woollen Rivers in Arnhemland, a place called Djerringgi.  The two rainbow snakes ceremony is located upstream at Woollen River itself.

The artist of this painting has the full rights to paint this specific ceremony because this is his mother’s mother ceremony.

The dots between the rainbow snakes and where the longneck turtles are laying are little twigs (djilinydjil).

The dots outside or beside the rainbow snakes are the sand bank and he long grass (burrululu).

The leaves within the circle shapes are the waterlily leaves, the home of the longneck turtles and rainbow snakes.