Native American cradleboards

Native American cradleboards: awesome baby carriers!

Hello everyonecherokee woman with baby in cradleboard

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.

child in cradleboard-1925

Child in cradleboard-1925

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!

Nez Perce cradleboard

Nez Perce Cradleboard

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!

 

Kiowa cradleboard

Kiowa cradleboard

 

Navajo mother with hooded cradleboard

Navajo mother with hooded cradleboard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Kiowa mother with child in cradlebaord

Kiowa mother with child in cradleboard

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.



30 thoughts on “Native American cradleboards

  1. Matthew

    I’ve never heard of a cradleboard, though it certainly looks comfy! I believe we should gain better general knowledge on other cultures and styles of life. We could apply many of these ideas to our life-time and I’m sure we’d be better off because of it!

    It’s touching to see how much care and effort was given to the new member of the family.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      oh absolutely, lots of teachings from previous generations could help us! it does look comfy doesn’t it? Almost like the baby is back in the womb

      Reply
  2. Eric

    Super interesting as is always my thoughts here!

    OK – I’ll fess up – I was one of those that thought of a papoose as a Native American swaddle device.
    I stand corrected now. Thank you Emily.

    I have a couple of questions – Do you have a mailing list I can sign up for so I get site updates? Would you consider doing an article on building a Tepee, specifically the outer lining? And well I guess its a few questions now – do you know where I can get a REAL pair of Native American moccasins to wear?

    Eric

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Eric
      good that you fess up lol 🙂
      There is a mailing list on my site on the right. You can sign up for it.
      As far as building a tepee, I would have to look into it but I think I could write a post about it. Anything you are wondering in particular regarding the outer lining?
      And as for moccasins, well you can certainly try to connect with local native artists in your area (if there is a community center, a native center) as I am not sure where you are located. or you can also check out this site http://www.manitobah.ca. It’s an Aboriginal owned and operated canadian company. Their moccasins are super well made and comfy.

      Reply
  3. Mashal

    Emily thanks for the education. This is extremely interesting. I’ve never heard of cradleboards! By the way, your background and pictures are awesome.

    Reply
  4. Sylvia

    I’ve never heard of a cradleboard too.
    I think it’s an unique art piece, made with a mother’s love!
    The idea of attaching medicine to keep mosquitos away is amazing.
    I’m glad to learn more about traditions and culture from your site.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Sylvia
      it sure was made out of love! Medicine is used everywhere in the native culture, Mother Earth gives us so much!

      Reply
  5. Demi

    I had never heard of cradleboard until now. So much of dedication and love would have been put into in making of cradleboard. So well build by then, keeping safety and comfort of the baby in mind. Very nice article!

    Reply
  6. Ed

    Hi Emily,
    I have heard of and seen these fantastic Native American cradleboards before. Now I may be totally wrong, but if I’m not mistaken, this is where the idea of the modern baby carriers of today originated from. What are your thoughs on it? Cheers

    Reply
  7. Kinya

    Great article. I’ve learned so much about Native American culture from your site. I love how you correct stereotypes and the view of the general public about your heritage. I also love the history lessons – but I am a history freak. Wonderful work.

    Anyway, back on topic: those cradleboards look like beautiful pieces of art. I have a couple of questions though. When the child was finished with the cradleboard, what does the family do with it? And do they make a new cradleboard for each infant, or do they recycle them?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      glad you enjoyed it Kinya!
      I do believe that the family recucled the cradleboard for different children, possibly adding to it for each child. I tihnk they would keep it or pass it on to the next generation

      Reply
  8. Tina

    Hi Emily. I, too, have never heard of Native American Cradleboards until I came across your article. These cradleboards look gorgeous and I hope they’re very comfortable for the babies. I like the photos you have for this article.

    Reply
  9. Aikaterini Markakis

    Hello! This is my first time visiting your website and i am amazed! I have been always interested in Native American history! Your post is very informative! I never knew all that about cradleboards! Thank you for giving out all these details! Great job!

    Reply
  10. Peter

    Hello Emily and thank you for another delightful article. We certainly don’t have cradleboards here in the UK of course but I think we should! The pictures you share with us are terrific and they really are works of art! Thank you so much.
    Peter

    Reply
  11. Den

    These are so cute, thoughtful (hooded cradleboards) and practical, with beautiful intricate designs. These boards protect infants from the elements too.

    I like seeing how different countries carry their babies. Good to know other options in case you don’t have a stroller.

    Learned something new today!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Den
      cradle boards were indeed so practical. They shielded the child and took way less space than our modern strollers. A much simpler way of transporting a child.

      Reply
  12. Jaye'

    You should learn more about the history of why most elderly grandmothers feel about seeing a child in the cradleboard and how they get emotional and brings them many bad memories!!!

    Reply
  13. Bria

    Hello Emily,

    Reading your article was very interesting. love how their different nationalities had very different styles. Have heard of the cradle-board. But i used to call them a papoose carrier. Anyway have been looking for an original for some time and was wondering if you knew of anywhere to buy them.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Bria
      so nice of you to stop by! A papoose carrier is for sure another name for a cradleboard 🙂 Just like the baby swing, they have been around for a very long time as they were so useful and practical. I am not sure where you can buy one. You might want to check Etsy but they mostly have cradleboards for dolls. I would recommend that if you go to a Pow wow, to ask the artists there. I have seen some sold at pow wows or at least you could order one from the artists.

      Reply
  14. Jessica

    This carrier has always been so uniquely beautiful. I do wonder if what I was told was correct as far the carrier making the babies head flat. I’ve noticed that some of the Native American culture does have rather flat heads in the back and was wondering if that is a fair connection?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Jessica
      it is thought that the cradleboard contributed to a flat head or some spine and legs issues as the baby was technically standing up when being carried. However, it was not proven as it actually provided a lot of structure to the body of the baby. It was and still is used and was practical for everyone 🙂

      Reply

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