Native American cradleboards: awesome baby carriers!
For those of you who follow my Facebook page, you will have seen pictures of native women with their babies in what looks like a wooden baby carrier. Just like the absolutely stunning Cherokee woman on the right with her cute baby. What the baby is in is called a cradleboard my friends. And they were awesome! Let’s start by looking at what a cradleboard is and why it is awesome.
What is a cradleboard?
Well a cradleboard, also called a baby carrier or baby board, is a Native American baby carrier.
It is sometimes referred inaccurately as a papoose from the Algonquin word papoos, meaning child, or more accurately Native American child. Hence why a cradleboard is not a papoose….
If you look at the happy child on the right, you will notice that he is all bundled up. Kids on cradleboards would be swaddled (all wrapped up tightly in a blanket so that even their arms are inside the blanket) and then strapped to a board. The board could be made of wood or even tightly woven basket fiber.
The swaddling of the infant or newborn would allow the baby to stretch out, as most newborns, when laid flat on their back will do the fetal tuck (knees go up on their chest). However, there has been some controversy regarding the act of swaddling a child and its effects on leg and hip development. It seems like the problem was mostly the improper leg support, rather than the swaddling itself. Being swaddled is actually typically soothing for infants, it’s comforting, reminiscent of being held tightly by their mother. And as the baby grew, their arms would typically be left free so they could play with a toy. Older children were not carried in a cradleboard but rather allowed to play on the ground.
But it is much more than a baby carrier!
Oh yes it is! If you think about it, native american children were adored (I am not saying that kids these days are not). From their first clothes, to their toys and the cradleboards they were carried in, everything looked like a work of art! Cradleboards were typically not a simply wood board. Oh no! They were adorned and you will see different styles, depending on the nation. Some had a “hood” to protect the child from the elements or protect their head should the cradleboard fall. Sometimes, a toy would dangle from the hood (like on you would find on a stroller or mobile) or medicine could be attached to keep mosquitos away. Good luck charms or amulets to protect the baby could also be attached to the hood. It was not unusual to have an amulet hanging from the cradleboard. An amulet containing the baby’s umbilical cord, meant to protect the baby and bring health. Moreover, some cradleboards included leather, embroidery, bead work, painting, you name it. Just look at the Nez Perce cradleboard on the right and the Kiowa one below. Such care went into them!
The care that went into making them (a family member would typically make it) showed the love for the new addition in the family. It represented the notion of new life, community, family and even tribe. Infants were carried on their mother’s back during long walks or even dances. I have personally seen very young infants strapped to their mother’s back during Pow wows, right in the midst of the dance floor. It is such a beautiful sight!
But how would the baby stay in?
Because of how they were made, cradleboards allowed the mother to carry the child on her back, in her arms (for the smaller cradleboards) or even propped up on the floor like our modern day baby chairs (the Kiowa one above could be propped up). The babies were attached to the cradleboard in different ways. Some boards had a leather or cloth bag attached, in which the baby was placed (like the Nez Perce one). Others had leather straps or cords attached to the board, which were used to secure the baby to the board (like the Navajo baby above). Sometimes straps were laced up in the middle (like in the picture above taken in 1925). In other words, there was no way that child was falling out!
I see cradleboards as having provided much more than a practical way to carry a child or physical protection for the child when traveling. They were a way to express love for the child as well as spiritual protection. They were an expression of traditions, culture and a way to embody and carry on the family spirit as well as the community spirit.
Had you ever heard of the cradleboard? What do you think of it? Leave your comments below! You can also find some cradleboards (and related objects such as tiny cradleboard earrings) on Etsy.