Native children were adored. From their first baby cradle to the clothes they wore when they began to walk, and the toys and dolls they played with, these exquisite items expressed the family’s deep love for the child…but of all these beautifully made childhood treasures, the cradleboard was by far the most extraordinary.
“Cradles in particular symbolized the continuity of the family, community, and tribe, and of human life.” – excerpt from the book Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains
Most Northern Plains Indian cradleboards feature a hooded cradle bundle made of animal hide. Many have a wooden frame and either slats or a solid headboard form rising from the back (the Lakota version had long wooden slats, the Crow boards used a rounded, elongated headboard).
The outer surface of the hide bundle was often adorned with colorful quillwork or beadwork, shells, bells, and fringe, as well as animal teeth, claws, and other found items; the wooden frame and slats were sometimes embellished with carvings, brass tacks, or paint.
Some carriers also had a mobile of beads and bells suspended from its hood to entertain the baby while in the carrier.
Bead & Quillwork Designs
In a beautiful display of the family’s love and adoration, as well as provide the little one with spiritual protection and wishes for a long, healthy life, design elements ranged from powerful animal images and strong tribal symbols, to ancestral family designs.
Despite the similarities in construction and materials, each was absolutely unique – the beaded or quilled designs on the cradles were never duplicated and were exclusive only to that child.
A colorful amulet (usually embellished with quill or beadwork) often accompanied the cradleboard. This little ornament housed the baby’s umbilical cord and was hung from the carrier to also protect the child and also ensure heath, and longevity.
Many of these amulets took the form of an animal – that of a turtle or lizard were the most common, as they are both associated with the attributes of strength and long life.
As many Plains Tribes were nomadic, cradleboards also provided the child physical protection when the family was traveling to a new camp site – either carried like a backpack or suspended from a horse’s saddle.
During daily camp life, while the mother was working, she could keep the baby in her sight by leaning the cradle against a tree; at night, the carrier could be brought inside the tipi and used as a bed for the baby.