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The Cradleboard: An intricate and stunning example of Native American culture

September 15, 2017

Ute cradleboard; circa 1895

What is a Cradleboard?

Many Native American tribes have used cradleboards for centuries. Cradleboards are also known as a baby carrier or a baby board. While a cradleboard is also known as a papoose, this is not the proper context of the word. Derived from the Algonquin word papoos meaning “child,” early colonial settlers misunderstood the definition when first interacting with the Wampanoag and other East Coast tribes, thus assuming the word was employed for the carrier.

While the cradleboard is generally known as a traditional Native American item, the cradleboard itself differs from one tribe to the next. Different board compositions and decorations are used. Even the way the child is fastened to the board varies. You will find several different styles at Ute Mountain Indian Trading Company in Cortez, Colorado. Stop in today and take a piece of Native American culture home with you!

Cradleboard Composition

A cradleboard began with a hooded cradle bundle made of animal hide. This is what the child was wrapped in. The board itself consisted of a solid headboard, slats, or tightly woven basket fiber. These variations allowed the mother to carry the child on her back, in her arms, or as a baby chair by propping the cradleboard up.


Left: Chippewa mother holding cradleboard; Center: Kiowa mother carrying cradleboard on back; Right: Plains tribe cradleboard propped up

Each cradleboard design was unique, and much time and work went into the final product; this was a sign of love and adoration for the newest family member. Design elements ranged from powerful animal images and strong tribal symbols, to ancestral family designs. The hide exterior was typically adorned with beadwork, quillwork, shells, bead, fringe, animal teeth, claws, and other items. The wooden frame was often embellished with carvings, brass tacks, or paint.


Beadwork turtle amulet

Amulets were a common addition to cradleboards. These small pouches were embellished with bead or quillwork, and contained the baby’s umbilical cord. They also sometimes took the form of an animal, most commonly a turtle or a lizard, which symbolize strength and long life. The amulet was then hung from the carrier to protect the child and also ensure good health and longevity.

The cradleboard sometimes contained a mobile of sorts made of bells and beads that were suspended in front of the baby for entertainment purposes. A form of medicine was also sometimes added to the cradleboard to repel mosquitos.

In order to keep the child in the cradleboard, some cradleboards had leather or cloth bags attached that the baby was then placed into. Others used leather straps or cords attached to the board to secure the baby in place in a woven pattern across the width of the cradleboard. Straps were also laced up the middle as well, which in return formed the hood for the baby once laced up entirely.

Comfort & Concerns

The act of swaddling was one of the most important factors of utilizing a cradleboard. The baby would be wrapped tightly in a blanket, which included their arms. As the child grew, however, their arms were left free to allow them to play with the attached mobile or toy. Swaddling allowed babies to stretch out rather than revert back to the fetal position that naturally occurs when the baby is laid down. Swaddling is also soothing for infants. It is comfortable and assimilates the feeling of being held. While some believe that swaddling can lead to leg and hip problems and can inhibit proper development, it is rather improper leg support that is the bigger culprit of these issues. Cradleboards provide a lot of support to the body of the baby, so there is no reason for these concerns.

Cradleboards Today


Attendees of a cradleboard workshop show off their finished pieces

Cradleboards were and still are a way of expressing love and spiritual protection for a child. Cradleboards are still made, bought, and handed down in some Native American communities, especially here in the Southwest. Today, cradleboards are more so used as regalia than an everyday practical item, but some families still use them regularly. To see the true beauty of these one-of-a-kind pieces of art, come down to Ute Mountain Indian Trading Company!


The Native American Cradleboard, More Than Just a Baby Carrier

Native American cradleboards


27601 E Hwy 160, Cortez, CO 81321