A cradleboard is a traditional kind of Native American baby carrier used by many Native American tribes across North America. Fewer tribes traditionally made cradles; most of these were made from indigenous woven fibers. Some tribes, such as the Wabanaki of the Northeast began making the European cradle form after European contact. The basket makers of the Wabanaki adapted these European cradle form using brown ash their traditional basketry material or making a cradle of birch bark and decorating it with colorful porcupine quills..
Birch Bark Cradle - with porcupine quill decoration, 1868 by Mi’kmaq artist Christianne Morris. This is in the collections of the Desbrisay Museum, Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, Canada. The quill work took Ms. Morris a year to complete and this is considered the finest example of Mi'kmaq quillwork to exist. It shows many traditional symbols and motifs popular with the Mi'kmaq. (MicMac is the American spelling of Mi'kmaq; part of the Northeast USA and Eastern Canadaian Wabanaki federation of 5 tribes. (One of these tribes, the Penobscot made wooden cradleboards prior to European contact and continued making them thru the late 1800's)
Cheyenne Cradleboard - with beaded baby wrap on wood frame,1890. This is in the collection of the Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado, USA. The beaded design includes several traditional geometric symbols and well as several deer.
Passamaquoddy Doll Cradle, - basket woven of brown ash, 1880 - this is available in the store section of this website, in the "Vintage Maine Items" section. Gaby Pelletier, Wabanaki material history consultant and author writes of Wabanaki doll cradles - “Very few basket doll’s cradles have survived because they were well used by little girls who were not always gentle with their toys. " - Available in this website store in the "Vintage Maine Items" section
When using any cradleboard, the baby is swaddled (wrapped tightly in a small blanket) and strapped to a specially designed flat board, usually made of a wood plank (although some tribes wove them from basket fibers.) The cradleboard can then be carried in the mother's arms, worn on her back like a backpack for travel, propped up on the ground like a baby chair, or secured to a sled or travois for longer journeys. After horses were introduced to the Americas, cradleboards in some tribes began to be designed to hang off the side of a horse as well.
The Native American tribes that did not make/use cradleboards were those tribes where families didn't traditionally bring infants out of their village, so they didn't need a special way to carry them. In some California Indian tribes, babies were placed in horizontal baby baskets while their mothers worked, other tribes used a baby basket (cradle) for the baby's bed. Other means of transporting babies, not involving cradleboards were used. For example Inuit (Eskimo) women usually carried their babies on their backs, inside the oversized hood of their parkas. And in most of South and Central America, Indian babies are carried in slings across the mother's hip, chest, or back. But cradleboards are by far the most common Native baby carrier in North America. The wooden cradleboard was generally a wooden frame with a flat backboard. Sometimes cradleboards had a curved wooden bow, or hoop added to the front. The ends of the bow insert into a carved wooden brace laid across the underside of the backboard and usually attached to it with hide lacing, nails, or screws. The main purpose of the bow was to protect the baby’s head should the cradle fall, but it was also frequently draped with a cloth or blanket to keep the child comfortable depending on the weather. Toys and amulets were frequently hung from the bow for the child’s amusement and spiritual protection. A wooden footrest or curved wooden foot guard was sometimes added and was generally nailed or laced to the backboard.
Most cradles and cradleboards were decorated, the plains tribes first used porcupine quills to decorate the leather blankets and cloths that held the babies in their cradleboards, later they used glass beads which they obtained through trade. The Penobscot used chip carving to add design to their all wood cradleboards. The Iroquois painted their wooden cradleboards with beautiful designs. Some tribes such as the Chippewa, Cree and Ojibwe used a red hot stick to burn designs into the cradleboard (Burnt work). The Apache cradleboards were made from half-hoop willow wood saplings with the flat sides laid horizontally to create the backboard, leather and later cloth dyed yellow.
While Native American cradleboards and cradles hold special meaning for many people because of their obvious intent - to be used for what most people consider their most precious thing, their baby - Native American doll cradleboards and doll cradles, to me are even more poignant. A cradleboard or cradle is nearly a necessity for a family, but time spent making a doll cradle board or doll cradle is a labor of love for a special child. Referring to antique ash woven doll cradle baskets, such as the one pictured on this page, Gaby Pelletier, Wabanaki material history consultant and author says "Very few basket doll’s cradles have survived because they were well used by little girls who were not always gentle with their toys. " This holds true for any antique Native American doll cradle or cradleboard.