Cradleboards are a type of protective baby carrier, historically used by the indigenous peoples of North and Central America. They enabled a mother to carry her child on her back, strap it to the side of a horse, or lean it against a tree or building when busy. The stiff wooden baseboard protected the baby’s spine in its first few months of life, whilst the hood provided shade from the sun or shelter from wind and rain. Many elders believed cradleboards ‘socialized’ infants when worn because it brought the child to the eye level of the adults.
This example was made by a member of the Lakota (or Teton) Sioux, one of a confederation of seven related Sioux tribes of the Great Plains region. It is made of both rawhide and tanned animal skin, stitched with sinew, and covered in lazy-stich beadwork of colourful geometrical designs on a white background. ‘Lazy-stich’ is the term used to describe one of the simplest beadwork techniques, used to cover large areas quickly with tight, ridged beading.
The Pitt Rivers Museum has numerous and varied examples of baby carriers on display, from the Ojibwe tribe in the northeast woodlands, to the Cree Nation of Canada, to the Yurok tribe of California. They are varied in form and style: some have wooden frames, others are fabric bags lined with soft moss. They often feature naturalistic designs or cultural motifs, rendered in beadwork or paint, and might be decorated with shells, quills, ribbons, coins or beads. Some have dangling items, designed either to amuse the baby or to act as charms against diseases like smallpox. Most were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the cultural traditions of many of these groups were under threat. Fortunately however, some of these traditions survive and cradleboards and baby-carriers are still used by some indigenous peoples today.