English (United Kingdom)French (Fr)

Cradles of Life

Written by Sydney Seaver   
Saturday, 01 March 2008 00:00
Article Index
Cradles of Life
Page 2
Page 3
All Pages

Since the beginning of time indigenous cultures have worn their babies. The cradle appears to have originated as a part of the culture of the early Mesolithic hunters in Asia. Early Pleistocene migrations probably brought the cradle to North America since the cradle is linked predominately to nomadic hunting and gathering cultures. Contrasted to the variety of modern furnishings used in the United States today to carry and transport infants, the North American Indian cradle is an example of a simple but highly versatile design. Perhaps the popularity of the plastic infant seat and back carriers we have seen in the US recently reflects an increasingly mobile and somewhat nomadic society, in which women feel the need for a carrier that will secure the baby and keep it close.

The Sioux Indians from the Great Plains had an infant carrier called a cradleboard. It was enhanced with a patch of leather on the lower front, which acted as a shield for boys to keep their urine from collecting around their bodies. The wooden frame had a beaded leather cover decorated with buttons, beads and bells. The lining was cotton cloth sewn to a crested buckskin cover that was quilled in bright red with yellow, blue, and white trim. The crest may be a variation of the turtle design, which symbolized protective power over disease in infancy.

The Apache from the Southwest used a bent willow frame and wooden slats to support the baby, while a hood of willow twined with cotton string acted as protection. The Chippewa cradle had a sunshade support and footrest. Other tribes used plaited and shredded cedar bark and beaded buckskin covers on a wood backing. Toy infant cradles were also made just as we now provide our children with toy dolls that wet and cry, baby bottles, and strollers. The Blackfoot used doll cradles to educate young girls in the fundamentals of childcare. A great deal of borrowing of ideas must have occurred among the tribes in terms of cradle construction. (Mason, 1889) It is interesting that our current market of carriers and slings reflected on Internet web sites also illustrate considerable design similarities.

In the Canadian subarctic many Athabaskan-speaking tribes packed the base of their cradle with shredded bark and moss that served as bedding and diaper. A great variety of basket-framed cradles were used, both sitting and reclining. Some were decorated with porcupine quills or rosette designs. One belief is that the rosette symbolizes “the crown of the child’s head” as well as “its intelligence.”