Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Indian Cradles



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



In North American ethnology, [a cradle was] the device in which the infant was bound during the first months of life. It served for both cradle and baby's carriage, more especially the latter. In the arctic region, where the extreme cold would have been fatal, cradles were not used, the infant being carried about in the hood of the mother's fur parka; the Mackenzie River tribes put the baby in a bag of moss. In the warmer regions also, from the boundary of Mexico southward, frames were not universal, but the child, wearing little clothing, was in some way attached to the mother and borne on her hip, where it partly rode and partly clung, or rested in hammock-like swings. The territory between these extremes was the home of the cradle, which is found in great variety. The parts of the cradle are the body, the bed and covering, the pillow and other appliances for the head, including those for head flattening, the lashing, the foot-rest, the bow, the awning, the devices for suspension, and the trinkets and amulets, such as dewclaws, serving for rattles and moving attractions as well as for keeping away evil spirits. Cradles differ in form, technic, and decoration. Materials and designs were often selected with great care and much ceremony, the former being those best adapted for the purpose that nature provided in each culture area, and they, quite as much as the wish of the maker, decided the form and decoration.


Bark Cradles . - These were used in the interior of Alaska and in the Mackenzie drainage basin. They were made of a single piece of birch or other bark, bent into the form of a trough, with a hood, and tastefully adorned with quillwork. The bed was of soft fur, the lashing of babiche. They were carried on the mother's hack by means of a forehead band.


Skin cradles . - Adopted in the area of the buffalo and other great mammals. The hide with the hair on was rolled up, instead of bark, and in much the same way, to hold the infant; when composed of hide only they were seldom decorated.


Lattice cradles . - On the plains, cradles made of dressed skins were lashed to a lattice of flat sticks, especially among the Kiowa, Comanche, and others; but all the tribes now borrow from one another. In these are to be seen the perfection of this device. The infant, wrapped in furs, was entirely encased. Over the face was bent a flat bow adorned with pendants or amulets and covered, in the best examples, with a costly hood. The whole upper surface of the hide was a field of beadwork, quillwork, or other decoration, in which symbolic and heraldic devices were wrought. The frame was supported and carried on the mother's back or swung from the pommel of a saddle by means of bands attached to the lattice frame in the rear. Among some tribes the upper ends of the frame projected upward and were decorated.


Board cradles . - Nearly akin to the last named is the form seen among the Iroquoian and Algonquian tribes of the E., in which a thin, rectangular board takes the place of the lattice. It was frequently carved and gorgeously painted, and had a projecting foot-rest. The bow was also bent to a right angle and decorated. The infant, after swaddling, was laid upon the board, and lashed fast by means of a long band. The tree for the Pawnee cradleboard was carefully selected, and the middle taken out so that the heart or life should be preserved, else the child would die. Equal care was taken that the head of the cradle should follow the grain. The spots on the wildcat skin used for a cover symbolized the stars, the bow the sky, and the crooked furrow cut thereon signified the lightning, whose power was typified by the arrows tied to the bow (Fletcher). All the parts were symbolic.


Dugout cradles . - On the N. Pacific coast the infant was placed in a little box of cedar. The region furnished material, and the adze habit, acquired in canoe excavation, made the manufacture easy. Interesting peculiarities of these cradles are the method of suspending them horizontally, as in Siberia , the pads of shredded bark for head flattening, and the relaxation of the child's body in place of straight lacing. Decorative features are almost wanting.


Matting cradles . - Closely allied to dugout cradles and similar in the arrangement of parts are those found in contiguous areas made from the bast of cedar.


Basket cradles . - On the Pacific slope and throughout the interior basin the basket cradle predominates and exists in great variety. Form, structure and decoration are borrowed from contiguous regions. In British Columbia the dugout cradle is beautifully copied in coiled work and decorated with imbrications. The Salish have developed such variety in basketry technic that mixed types of cradles are not surprising. In the coast region of N. California and Oregon cradles are more like little chairs; the child's feet are free, and it sits in the basket as if getting ready for emancipation from restraint. The woman lavishes her skill upon this vehicle for the object of her affection. Trinkets, face protectors, and soft beds complete the outfit. Elsewhere in California the baby lies flat. In the interior basin the use of basketry in cradles is characteristic of the Shoshonean tribes. In certain pueblos of New Mexico wicker coverings are placed over them.


Hurdle cradles. - These consist of a number of rods or small canes or sticks arranged in a plane on an oblong hoop and held in place by lashing with splints or cords. The Yuman tribes and the Wichita so made them. The bed is of cottonwood bast, shredded, and the child is held in place in some examples by an artistic wrapping of coloured woven belt. The Apache, Navaho, and Pueblo tribes combine the basket, the hurdle, and the board cradles, the Navaho covering the framework with drapery of the softest buckskin and loading it with ornaments. The ancient cliff-dwellers used both the board and the hurdle forms.


Hammock cradles . - Here and there were tries that placed their infants in network or wooden hammocks suspended by the ends. In these the true function of the cradle as a sleeping place is better fulfilled, other varieties serving rather for carrying.


Among the San Carlos Apache at least the cradle is made after the baby is born, to fit the body; later on a larger one is prepared. The infant was not placed at once after birth into the cradle after the washing; a certain number of days elapsed before the act was performed with appropriate ceremonies. When the mother was working about the home the infant was not kept in the cradle, but was laid on a robe or mat and allowed free play of body and limbs. The final escape was gradual, the process taking a year or more. The cradle distorted the head by flattening the occiput as a natural consequence of contact between the resistant pillow and the immature bone, and among certain tribes this action was enhanced by pressure of pads. The Navaho are said to adjust the padding under the shoulders also. Hrdlicka finds skull deformations more pronounced and common in males than in females. In many tribes scented herbs were placed in the bedding. Among the Yuma difference was sometimes made in adorning boys' and girls' cradles, the former being much more costly. Some tribes make a new cradle for each child, but among the Pueblo tribes, particularly, the cradle was a sacred object, handed down in the family, and the number of children it had carried was frequently shown by notches on the frame. Its sale would, it is thought, result in the death of the child. If the infant died while in the helpless age, the cradle was either thrown away (Walapai and Tonto), broken up, burned, or placed on the grave (Navaho and Apache), or buried with the corpse, laced up inside, as in life (cliff-dwellers, Kiowa). The grief of a mother on the death of an infant is intensely pathetic. The doll and the cradle were everywhere playthings of Indian girls.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 116-117.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College