Rosamund Burton heading
Wise words | Good Reading | Feb 2007, p. 34
The friendship between Karl-Eric Sveiby, a Finn, and Tex Skuthorpe, a Nhunggaburra man, resulted in their collaborative book Treading Lightly: the hidden wisdom of the world's oldest people. Rosamund Burton talked to them about it.

Tex Skuthorpe, a teacher of Aboriginal culture, and Karl-Erik Sveiby, a Finnish management academic who lived in Australia for nine years, met when both were running training workshops for managers of Carlton Brewery. Sveiby was intrigued to see that Skuthorpe was facilitating the managers to paint a one-hundred-year vision for the brewery while also teaching them relevant concepts from Aboriginal culture.

Because both Skuthorpe's parents were law totems (his mother was a sand goanna and his father was an emu), and he was the eldest in his family, he was able to learn, record and paint the Nhunggaburra stories. Growing up he learnt the different levels of meanings of the stories from the elders. ‘They would tell me the story once and I had to remember it, I couldn't write anything down. I had to keep it all in my head,’ says Skuthorpe. ‘Then I would go away and sit down for months and look at all the meanings in the story’.

The stories explain the laws that govern the community, the individual's relationship with the rest of the community, the community's relationship with other communities, and the spiritual and psychic laws. ‘To learn the story properly’ Skuthorpe says, ‘the elders had to take me into the bush and show me the story in the landscape. You have to find all the pieces in the landscape which relate to the story and all the animals that play a part in it’.

Tex Skuthorpe had many stories in his head, but he had never written them down. So he told them to his partner, Anne Morrill, who recorded them, and that was the first step of the book.

‘But I could not just take these stories at face value,’ explains Karl-Erik Sveiby. ‘I had to go and look into records – anthropology, sociology, the early explorers – anything I could find which in one way or another could either refute or corroborate what was depicted in a particular story’.

Skuthorpe and Sveiby also visited the sites of the stories – another way of verifying the information. The result of their work is this wonderful book, a fascinating insight into Aboriginal life and culture in Australia prior to European settlement. Skuthorpe's people, the Nhunggaburra, were one of twenty-six communities which populated an area from near Brewarrina in the west, the Queensland border to the north, and Tamworth to the east.

When they reached the age of fourteen, boys from all the communities left their own people and travelled for eighteen years or more to the other twenty-five communities, not returning until they were in their thirties. The young women learnt from women from other communities marrying into their society. At any time a community was made up of two-thirds foreigners, as all the adult women were from other communities, and about a third of the men would be there on their learning journey.

‘It created an incredible diversity and intermingling, and an interconnectedness among people. This is a principle we can learn from in the Asia-Pacific region, and also in a big continent like Australia,’ says Sveiby.

What was fascinating for Sveiby, with his background in management and organisation, was the Nhunggaburra peoples approach to leadership. There was no supreme leader in the community. Instead, in any situation the person who was most knowledgeable assumed the lead. On a hunting expedition the most knowledgeable tracker would take the lead, and then stand aside for the best spear thrower. Everyone had a leadership role in a particular area, and this generated huge respect for all members of the community.

Early white explorers' descriptions of the country they passed through, compared to what the same land looks like today, illustrate that extreme devastation has taken place. The book describes the Aborigines' strong connection with the land, and their strong sense of responsibility for it.

Tex Skuthorpe's father had a dream to buy back all Tex's mother's traditional land, and in 1975 he bought a property of 13,000 acres, and after that several other properties, accumulating in total about a quarter of a million acres. Under an Aboriginal management plan the land was not stocked for about eight years. Today it is managed by Tex's brother, who maintains a balance between the stock and the wildlife and native plants.

‘The main message in the book is that we should learn from the principles of societies that were much more advanced than we tend to believe today,’ concludes Sveiby. ‘They were thought to be primitive people who didn't know a lot, whereas they are the only ones who have this long record of sustainability. Particularly in Australia, where the soil and the land are so fragile, this is so important for the survival of the country and its people’.

Treading Lightly: the hidden wisdom of the world's oldest people by Karl-Erik Sveiby and Tex Skuthorpe is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $35.00
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