Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

English Sioux Blackfoot Shirt


The English Sioux: a 'Blackfoot' shirt

Meghan Backhouse, D.Phil student, Pitt Rivers Museum

Accession details for 1992.22.6 - Blackfoot-style beaded leather shirt; copy of a shirt currently held in the British Museum. Probably made by donor (Newton Turvey) sometime after January 1926 using commercially available European materials. Donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford by Kathleen Turvey, in August 1992.

Newton Turvey, wearing full regalia, including the shirt he made in the garden of a house at Thorpe Mandeville. [PRM RDF 1992.22

Newton Turvey, wearing full regalia, including the shirt he made in the garden of a house at Thorpe Mandeville. [PRM RDF 1992.22

A more detailed description of the shirt is as follows:

Skin shirt, painted on front and back with eagle, buffalo, horse and 'tadpole' motifs in black, green and orange; orange spots and stripes outlined in black on front and back; horizontal black stripes on sleeves. There is a rectangular panel of red, white and blue beadwork on both chest and back; bands of similar beadwork down sleeves and over shoulders. The beadwork panels were worked in lazy stitch on hessian, and all sewing was done with commercial thread. Lines were drawn to help with attachment of beadwork and positioning of spots: traces of these can still be seen. White weasel tails and tufts of dyed red down are attached to the beadwork bands at shoulders and on sleeves. The neck is edged with red woollen cloth and three bunches of horsehair and red-dyed down are attached to this edging at front and back. The edges of the shirt are fringed and the garment is fastened by means of thongs down the sides. The inner surface of the skin is stained blue in places. This garment may have been made in the Blackfoot style, as indicated by the 'tadpole' motif and the use of weasel tails.

This shirt and the collection to which it belongs, came to the Pitt Rivers Museum as part of a donation made by the widow of Newton Turvey in 1992. It was accepted, sight unseen, because it was believed that it was a product of a North American Plains indigenous people. After the collection arrived at the Museum questions were began to be raised to the origin of some of the individual pieces. Much of the collection, which includes raw materials as well as finished products including clothing, bags, head and foot wear, and smoking paraphernalia, appear to have been made by Mr. Turvey himself rather than by Native American craftspeople. A research visitor to the collection (Bill Holm) had remarked that he did not believe that the shirt had been made by a member of the First Nations. Uncatalogued images of the collector held informally in the Pitt Rivers Museum include photographs of Mr. Turvey wearing and showing off some of these objects in what appears to be an English garden. This collection and these images, when taken in conjunction with the other associated papers and images found in the Pitt Rivers Museum Archives, make it clear that Mr. Turvey had a lifelong, deeply held, personal interest and dedication to Native American causes. It is a fascination and dedication which is shared by many people in the United Kingdom and across Europe today. While not many collections of this type are known about publicly, there are bound to be many more held in private hands. These collections and the individuals who made them, while not generally considered politically correct, are worthy of consideration because of the insights provided about into the relationships that created them and the cultural contexts of the individuals involved. 

There are many factors which may have influenced Newton Turvey's interest in Native American culture. Such an interest was extremely popular in the early part of the twentieth century, but while it became less popular as the century progressed, many individuals across the British Isles have maintained their dedication. Today, groups can still be found in England that gather to study Native American culture and news and partake in Native American influenced activities.

Newton D.M. Turvey was born in Tooting, London and as a youth lived in Branksome, Bournemouth and attended Cheltenham College. He served in the First World War and afterwards worked in the legal profession, mostly protecting patents for Distillers in London. He served again in the Second World War, in the Middle East for part of the time. His interest in legal matters made him pay particular attention to the various U.S. treaties with Native Americans, he was also interested in natural history and was a supporter of Grey Owl and theOnaway Trust in Leeds, both of which placed great importance on the environment.

Newton Turvey himself was born in 1898, a period of great change in America where the Plains were being 'closed' and the last Native Americans who were not confined to reservations were subjugated to the rule of the United States federal government. These events in the United States of America, combined with the growing urbanization and strengthening industrialization of Europe led to a romanticisation of Native American life and the struggles involved in the settling of the American West. This can most clearly be seen in the proliferation of cheap novels written by European authors, notably Karl May, as well as the spectacles of travelling 'Wild West shows' which criss-crossed Europe from the turn of the twentieth century through the mid-1930s.

The Wild West shows were organised by white American showmen who would offer Native Americans work opportunities and a small salary in return for dressing up as the stereotyped 'Indian' and demonstrate raiding parties, dances (some invented, some authentic), and 'Indian' village life. A typical show would set up at a venue like Earl's Court, where there would be a large central arena for the 'show', surrounded by an 'Indian' village, where the visitors could wander freely and interact with participants in their 'natural' habitat. In these villages, Native American participants could make extra money by selling the crafts they demonstrated. The shows would also allow them to interact with and get to know a bit more about the world outside of the United States, and perhaps come to understand the white people in America better by understanding the countries from whence they came. These interactions allowed the English visitors to feel as if they were getting a glimpse into a completely different way of life – that of the 'Nobel Savage': a stereotype in which tribal cultures are thought to be more moral than European society, more equitable, and less destructive of nature.

Newton Turvey attended several of these shows, the first being in 1909 when he briefly met 'Chief' Red Shirt at the Red Man's Spectacle at Earl's Court. By then, however, the Turvey family had moved to the countryside outside Bournemouth and he had been introduced to the mythology of the 'Indian' when his mother gave him a copy of Hiawatha. This book and his love of horses inspired what he described as the 'two loves' of his life. He served in the First World War from 1914-1918, by which time he was also a dedicated lover of the natural world. The destruction of this conflict was an immense influence on European popular culture , and the Wild West shows picked up with great success after 1918. In the winter of 1925-1926, Bertram Mill's Circus was performing at London's Olympia and featured the 101 Ranch production company – complete with Sioux performers. It was here that Turvey was introduced to 'Chief' Black Horn and his wife Bessie. Turvey claims that Bessie Black Horn taught him how to make Sioux clothing and how to do Sioux beadwork during their stay in London. In fact a shirt, a pair of leggings and a pair of moccasins in the Turvey collection (1992.22.1, 1992.22.2 .1-.2, 1992.22.8 .1-.2), are likely to have been made entirely, or at least mostly by her. Turvey suggests that she allowed him to help her complete them while teaching him the techniques. During the same period, Chief Black Horn gave Turvey a pipe and pipe bag (1992.22.3 .1-.2, 1992.22.4). There may not have been much significance to these gifts from the Black Horns point of view, but Turvey obviously valued them greatly. It was these gifts, both physical and relational, that would reinforce Turvey's dedication to understanding and researching and demonstrating all things Native American until he died in 1992. Turvey kept a scrap book into which he pasted images and postcards of the Native Americans he met and he labelled each of them very clearly. There are many images of Black Horn in Turvey's scrapbook, showing his importance to him.

The interactions between Turvey and the Black Horns, and the many other Native Americans he encountered before and after 1926, were not truly unique. They represent highly staged zones of contact which were influenced by conditions of the period, but which also reflected the quest for different peoples to try to understand and define each other and themselves through these experiences. While this shirt, 1992.22.6, may be made out of rough leather (with Made in England stamped on it) and the beadwork consists of bright plastic beads, and there are pencil marks visible delineating where the bands of beadwork should be placed, it nonetheless is worthy of its place in the Pitt Rivers Museum collection as a representation of how England viewed – and continues to view - Native America and itself.

See an image of Newton Turvey here.