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Indigenous business owner and artist Steve Sutton knows more than most how hard it is to make a dollar in the Northern Territory.

He built his Indigewear brand from the most humble of beginnings – designing a single pair of rugby league shorts – to a company with more than 350 regular customers in just three years.

His Aboriginal designs are now on sports and casual wear throughout Australia.

Steve, who runs his business from his home in Tennant Creek, is immensely proud that he has done it all on his own – no government grants, no easy contracts because he is Indigenous, no helping hands.

He works ferociously hard – he is up at 4am, paints for a couple of hours, goes to work full-time at the town’s hospital and then comes home to manage Indigewear with his silent partner.

“I’m not afraid of hard work,” he says.

“I’ve learned that you have to jump through a lot of hoops to succeed in business.

“I haven’t got much education, but like a lot of Indigenous people, I’m street smart.

“I’m not afraid to dip my toes in the water and have a go.”

He is one of nine Territory speakers who will tell their success stories during October Business Month.

Steve’s artwork is displayed in the National Gallery in Canberra and a gallery in Italy. He paints for two Western Australia galleries and has staged several solo exhibitions.

“I’m a recognised Indigenous artist,” he says. “I own a business and do all my design work in-house. I own my own house, all my vehicles and two race horses.

“But I never think that makes me any different or any better than other Indigenous people.”


Indigewear, which takes orders from 10 to 5000 pieces, is keen to break into the corporate market – and is even investigating starting a stationery line.

Steve was born in Darwin.

He was put in the Retta Dixon children’s home on Bagot Road at the age of four and then Somerville House before being sent to a boarding school in Adelaide.

“I ran away from boarding school after a couple of months because I was lonely and apart from my family.”

His first job was working at the nowclosed Tennant Creek abattoir where he contracted a dangerous blood disease called Q fever.

“It’s a serious illness caught from cattle. I was in hospital for a few weeks and it’s reocurred twice. Abattoir workers nowadays are vaccinated against it.”

One of his work colleagues died of the bacterial infection.

Steve enjoys mentoring Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youngsters.

“I had a tough time as a young bloke but I’ve come through it. Lots of other kids have had a hard time – I know what they’ve been through, I can relate to them.

“I get them to talk about their lives and to express themselves through art.

“I like to think that I’ve saved a lot of people from going off the rails. Some of the people I’ve mentored are now in their forties with their own families, and they’re doing well. We stay in touch.”

Steve paints in two styles – crosshatching, from his grandmother’s Roper River roots, and dot painting, from his late mother’s Jawoyn heritage.

He has three sons and four grandchildren. And they are all artists.

Steve has an unusual claim to fame – his jockeys wear a distinctive Indigenous-themed livery when riding his horses, Cudjerie, which means “woman” in several Aboriginal languages, and Turf Man.

The jockeys are the first in Australian history to ride in Indigenous colours.

“All this is not bad for a little blackfella from Tennant Creek.”