A lamb approaching a Navajo baby in traditional cradleboard, ca. 1930s.
Cradleboards are traditional protective baby-carriers used by many indigenous cultures in North America and throughout northern Scandinavia amongst the Sámi. There are a variety of styles of cradleboard, reflecting the diverse artisan practices of indigenous cultures. Some indigenous communities in North America still use cradleboards.
Cradleboards are used for the first few months of an infant’s life, when a portable carrier for the baby is a necessity. Some cradleboards are woven, as with the Apache. Woven cradleboards are made of willow, dogwood, tule, or cattail fibres. Wooden cradleboards are made by the Iroquois and Penobscot. Navajo cradleboards are made with a Ponderosa pine frame with buckskin laces looped through the frame.
Whatever materials are used to make cradleboards, they share certain structural elements. Cradleboards are built with a broad, firm protective frame for the infant’s spine. A footrest is incorporated into the bottom of the cradleboard, as well as a rounded cover over the infant’s head that arcs out from the cradleboard, similar to a canopy or a modern-day baby carriage hood. The purpose of this headpiece is to provide shade for the infant, since it could be covered with an animal skin, or a blanket in winter to protect against the elements in colder climates. The headpiece also provides extra head protection in case anything bumps against the cradleboard. Ornaments and sacred amulets are often attached to the headpiece as well, for example “beaded umbilical cord cases, and dream catchers or medicine wheels”, to amuse and help the infant develop his or her eyesight.
The inside of the cradleboard is padded with a lining of fresh plant fibres, such as sphagnum moss, cattail down, or shredded bark from juniper or cliffrose. The lining serves as a disposable diaper, although the Navajo could clean and reuse the lining made of shredded juniper or cliffrose bark. These plant fibres have antiseptic properties, and thus nurture healthy skin in the infant. The Chippewa tradition was to make a lining for the cradleboard usually from moss growing in cranberry marshes, which is smoked over a fire to kill insects, then rubbed and pulled to soften it. In cold weather, the infant’s feet may be wrapped in rabbit skin with the fur facing inward. The moss lining is surrounded by a birch bark tray insert placed into the cradleboard, which could be removed for cleaning.