Thursday, January 28, 2010


By Roberta C.M. DeCaprio

I hear on the news all the time recalls for such baby items as cribs, car seats, highchairs and infant seats. We’re so cautious and careful with our babies these days, and rightfully so. Babies are precious and a mother can’t be too careful. But all of today’s care and concern led me to wonder about the pioneer day baby and how the mother’s of that time cared for their young. While writing my first historical, THE GOLDEN LADY, I had the opportunity to do research on the Apache people and their custom’s. I was particularly interested in the cradleboard, the baby carrier an Apache mother used.
This is what further research led me to discover:

Made of wood, hide, lichens, decorated with beads, tightly swaddled infants were carried around for up to a year in cradleboards. The cradleboard provided a secure and safe environment for the small baby. The baby was kept in the cradleboard at all times. This helped to keep the child's backbone and legs straight, further strengthen the neck muscles, and provide an opportunity for the infant to be visually and emotionally stimulated by his environment and family. The child was able to be carried on his mother's back using a strap attached to the back of the cradleboard. This way, the mother could be free to work with her hands. Using the strap, they sometimes hung or propped the basket up, so that the mother could also be within the child's view and communicate with the child. When tired, the infant could be rocked to sleep. Then the child could be laid down without disturbing its body or sleep.

Since willows could only be collected in the winter months, it was necessary for the basket maker to plan ahead. Once spring arrived, the willows would have too much water in them and could easily break. River willow was used for the boat cradleboard, which was prepared after the child was born. It was an open-twined weave forming an elliptical head guard for the infant. A rabbit-skin lining was placed inside to cushion the baby's head and body and buckskin laces were used to tie the baby in. Wild dogwood or rosewood willows were used to make the frames for the hoop cradleboard. Once gathered, the larger willows were scraped for the cradleboard frame and backing. The smaller willows would be used for the shade. The other willows would be split, simultaneously, in three parts to be used for weft thread. The same process was used for making other baskets. Using a warming method, the hoop frame was formed by tying the top and bottom frames together. After forming the frame, it was tied down to a flat-surface for a couple of weeks, to prevent it from twisting or bending out of shape. Willows were cut to fit the frame, a horizontal willow backing was used. The willows were fastened together by one or two vertical willows, using buckskin strips. Once the frame was ready, the ends of the willow backing was fit against the frame and attached the willows to the frame by wrapping the willow-backing with buckskin strips. The frame would then be covered with buckskin.The frame was placed on the buckskin. The buckskin was fitted around the frame by pulling it snugly towards the center. The center, top and bottom seam was marked. Then the buckskin was cut and sewn with their specialized bone needles and sinew-thread. The outside strings and loops were then added to the front flaps, using a bone awl to make holes and rabbit-skin batting was placed inside for a cushion.

A willow shade was added to the basket. The willow shade was made using river willows. It was woven in an open-twined weave fashion, using a decreasing procedure while weaving. First, the pattern at the top was made, using a naturally-dyed willow weft. The pattern depended on the gender of the baby. A diamond was used for a girl's shade and diagonal lines were used for a boy's shade. This shade not only provided a shade from the sun, but provided protection for the child's face and head if the cradle was knocked over and with a cover, it kept the wind out. The shade was attached to the outside of the basket. It was threaded through two holes and tied onto the backside.

The cradleboard was decorated by adding fringes to the sides and back. A strap was attached to the back of the cradleboard for carrying. A separate buckskin piece was attached to the bottom, so that it could be removed if soiled.

Today, the cradleboard is still being used. Many families have other tribal members or relatives make the cradle for them since many families have not kept up the tradition of making the cradle. Modern changes have been made in the construction of the cradleboard. Many are covered with a canvas-like material, allowing for a cooler, washable and more available cover for the cradle. Yarn is now used on the shade for the patterns and cloth around the edging, adding more color.


Paty Jager said...

It looks like we've gone Native American here. LOL

Roberta, I find the information interesting. I just finished reading about how the Nez Perce make their cradleboards. They are made in the same way but with the materials that are native to their regions.

Tanya Hanson said...

I love this post, Roberta. Was the baby ever allowed "out"? How did they learn to crawl or walk? I should say, when LOL, as obviously they did learn to walk.

Kathy Otten said...

Yes, I have the same question as Tanya.
I knew Native Americans used cradle boards, but I had no idea how they were made. Thanks for sharing the info. This blog as so many fascinating bits of history I'll have to remember to come back and use it as a resource for researching.

Renda Luvaas said...

It's just a wild shot in the dark ...but I am guessing that the baby was "allowed out" during the evening "downtime". BTW Cradleboards are still used by many moms, both native and non-native. Studies have even proven that their use reduces SIDS deaths. They are easy to make and make very well cherished family heirlooms.