Object Biography: Crow Cradleboard
by Holly Cecil, MA, Co-curator
For the family welcoming a newborn, the cradleboard solves a universal challenge: how to protect, transport, and amuse their infant. The diverse forms of cradleboards developed by Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (North America) each solved similar problems. Their design and materials needed to be strong enough to provide security, but also remain light enough for portability. Traditionally constructed over a sturdy frame, usually of willow or hazel, cradleboards were fashioned from natural materials and provided the newborn with safety, security, and warmth.
Cradleboards are carried upright, usually on the mother’s back. Snugly laced inside, the infant is protected from hazards but can still observe their surroundings and engage with others (Figure 2). Among swaddling traditions throughout the Americas and earlier northern European cultures, the practice of wrapping infants is not considered to be confining or distressing, but rather soothes and gives the infant a sense of security. At rest, the cradleboard and its precious cargo could be tied to a tree or propped upright to promote inclusion in family activities. Unlike childrearing practices laying infants flat in a crib, Indigenous traditions maintained that allowing infants to remain upright to engage at eye level with their family and community was crucial to their socialization.
This cradleboard of fringed white leather and multi-coloured geometric beadwork was made by the late renowned artist and beadier Winona Plenty Hoops (1917 – 2012), Iittaashtexaaliash (“Old Dress”) of the Crow or Apsáalooke nation (Lodge Grass, Montana). Apsáalooke (“opp-sah-loh-kay”) means “children of the large-beaked bird,” who traditionally occupied the Great Plains area in what is now Montana and Wyoming. Until her death at age 94, Plenty Hoops was considered to be the finest living traditional Crow beadier. She was also trained in herbal medicines, and in the significant cultural, ceremonial, and religious histories of the Crow people. Widely acclaimed for her expertise, she was the first Crow woman to have a handmade doll displayed in the Smithsonian Museum (Figure 3).
Cradleboards are not only functional, allowing mothers to carry and include children while working or socializing; their designs and ornamentation sustain cultural traditions and transmit them to new generations. Plenty Hoops created her beadwork in the geometric patterns and traditional Crow colours of blues, yellows and pink (Figure 4). Each cradleboard was designed for a specific infant, with decorative patterns identifying his or her gender. Geometric patterns for boys included diagonal lines, arrows or chevrons, possibly emulating hunting arrows, with zig-zag or diamond-shapes for girls.
In his book Precious Cargo, Indigenous scholar Brian Bibby describes how cradles become carriers of family and community identity, enfolding and shaping their newborn occupant:
“Within a Native community, the baby basket is an immediately recognizable expression of group affiliation, or membership. Holistically, the cradle is a ‘person molding’ thing: a container, a metaphor, a vehicle for thoughts, values, relationships, hope, and prayer.”1
Mothers and grandmothers crafted equally ornate, small-scale toy cradleboards for their children and grandchildren to play with. More than a toy, they became models for future roles. By emulating their mothers, young girls could learn the facets of lacing and carrying the cradle, and caring for their imaginary infant within.
Among the Plains tribes south of the Crow nation, another type of baby carrier was adapted by the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa (Figure 5). This design features a distinctive pair of pointed boards or slats as the underlying framework, covered by a rawhide form and completed with hide or cloth. The swaddled child was laced into the padded frame with beaded or woven straps. These frames were sometimes fitted with a bow-shaped eyeshade, which could be draped with cloth for protection from the elements, or from which small objects could be dangled to amuse the child. Among the Northern California peoples, such as the Pomo and Wintu, traditional forms included the sitting cradle, in which the base of the basket forms a seat in which the infant sits. Other variations from the Pacific Northwest include box-shaped cradles.
A variation on the wooden lattice or rawhide frames of the Plains nations was the true cradleboard in which the baby was strapped to a decorated board. An example is the Mohawk cradleboard from 1860, with its richly intricate carvings and a protective top hoop (see Figure 6). Objects dangled from this hoop might be functional – such as herb sachets to repel mosquitos – or ceremonial – such as amulets gifted by family members for health and good luck. Boys might be given a miniature bow-and-arrow set, or girls a string of shells. These dangling gifts also gave the infant an object to practice focusing their eyesight on.
Most cradleboards were intended only for young, nursing infants. Older babies might continue to be carried in them, but with their hands freed to move or play with a toy within reach. Once the child was able to crawl and sit unsupported, they left the cradleboard to be allowed supervised play on the ground. While cradleboards are no longer in widespread use, they are still sometimes gifted by family members to celebrate the arrival of a newborn infant. The life story of cradleboards communicates their long-standing history and the cultural traditions from which they arise, and also the ways that new generations are re-discovering their making and their use.
1 Brian Bibby, Precious Cargo: California Indian Cradle Baskets and Childbirth Traditions, (Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books; Novato, California: Marin Museum of the American Indian, 2004), 6.
Bibby, Brian. Precious Cargo: California Indian Cradle Baskets and Childbirth Traditions. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books; Novato, California: Marin Museum of the American Indian, 2004.
Billings Gazette. Obituary: “Winona Plenty Hoops.” March 8, 2012. Accessed online: Sept. 10, 2019. https://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/announcements/obituaries/winona-plenty-hoops/article_2896b565-8d10-5eb2-916b-e59da6e71c9b.html
Museum of the Plains Indian and Craft Center. “Historic and Contemporary Plateau and Plains Cradles,” Exhibition catalogue, Jan. 15 – March 23, 1995. Browning, Montana.
Ritzenthaler, Robert E. And Pat Ritzenthaler. The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes. Garden City New York: Natural History Press, 1970.
Schneider, Mary Jane. “Kiowa and Comanche Baby Carriers,” Plains Anthropologist 28:102, Part 1 (November 1983): 305-314.
White, Bruce. We Are at Home: Pictures of the Ojibwe People. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.