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Cradle Boards and Having an Opinion

March 27, 2009

The Ferber method, free-range kids, Dr. Spock, attachment parenting — it seems that the world has always been full of people who think that they know how to raise your kids better than you do.

In this vein, and in the context of early twentieth-century progressive party-crashers and a national campaign of widespread displacement and re-education, it’s no surprise that the activist and academic communities felt entitled to an opinion about the rearing of Native American children.

A quick literature search reveals a wealth of efforts from anthropologists and social reformers to make sense of, justify, critique, or otherwise worry their pretty heads with the issue of cradle boards and their effects on Native American children.

Hopi cradleboard

Hopi cradle board (Taapu) of wicker and cotton. Image by H. Frederick Schoch. Penn Museum image #150578, object 38669.

For instance, a 1966 article in the American Anthropologist discusses the presumably counter-intuitive idea that cradle boards are just fine for Native American children — but insists that this is so for scientific, rather than magical, reasons.

The foregoing discussion provides an example of an exotic custom which is magical in its rationale, but which nevertheless succeeds in doing what it is intended to do. It is therefore comparable to ‘Voodoo’ death, divination, and other magical techniques that ‘actually work’ [1]

A long and boring discussion of isometrics and infant strength precedes this statement. And thank goodness, because this little girl below totally needs the anthropologist’s approval.

Louise Smoky, a Kiowa, in a cradle board.

Louise Smoky, a Kiowa, in a cradle board. Charles H. Stephens collection; Penn Museum image #149915

This photograph in the collection of artist Charles H. Stephens presents a smiling Kiowa child, Louise Smoky. And I’m pretty sure that she’s cool with being in the cradle board.

These explorations of Indian mothering weren’t idle academic curiosity — they resulted in policy decisions that deeply affected families. Many white women missionaries and reformers believed that transforming Indian girls’ methods of raising children and keeping house were central to the assimilation and civilization of Indian people, and they lobbied for new government policies to remove Indian children from what they perceived as their pathological home environments. For example, Estelle Reel, the Superintendent of Indian Education from 1898 to 1910, declared that

The homes of the camp Indians are to be reached mostly through our school girls, who are to be the future wives and mothers of the race, and on their advancement will depend largely the future condition of the Indian. All history has proven that as the mother is, so is the home, and that a race will not rise above the home standard. [2]

In practice, this meant that Indian children were to be taken from their homes and communities and institutionalized in distant boarding schools where they would be re-educated and re-socialized.

The writings of the Women’s National Indian Association — a progressive-era organization formed with the mission of protecting Native Americans from encroachment of white settlers — exclaimed the need to  “get the babies off the board,” and explained that missionaries “would do a good work if we accomplished only [the cradle board’s] abolition.” The author hoped to teach each American Indian women “to hold her baby in her arms, and to put him upon a bed to sleep, ‘as white squaws do.’” [3]


Photograph c. 1904 by Rena Shattuck. On verso of photograph: "Girl is Annie Mitchell and baby is Clement Mitchell, children of Clara Mitchell (later Williams) and Tom Mitchell from the Yokayo Rancheria near Ukiah, CA. The dog's name is Pido." Penn Museum image #148781

The interest in cradleboards and their effects on infants endures. A recent article in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology reports that

this study suggests that the pressure and friction of an infant’s head against a cradleboard may have 1) produced ischemic ulcers, 2) produced the conditions favorable for bacterial infections such as impetigo or carbuncles, or 3) complicated the treatment of other infections appearing on the back of the scalp. [4]

But, as every parent from every generation knows, we’re all doing stuff to our kids, some of it recommended by the “experts”, that will probably make them crazy and hate us, or be decried as lethal or harmful by future “experts”.

[1] Hudson, Charles. 1966. Isometric Advantages of the Cradle Board: A Hypothesis. American Anthropologist 68, no. 2. New Series (April): 470-474. doi:10.2307/669347.

[2] Margaret Jacobs, “Playing with Dolls,” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 1, no. 3 (2008): 321-328.

[3] ibid

[4] Diane Young Holliday, “Occipital lesions: A possible cost of cradleboards,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 90, no. 3 (1993): 283-290, doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330900303. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2009 11:31 pm

    Hi Maureen–
    Love to connect with you– am writing an article on cradleboards. Love your comments…

  2. November 28, 2009 11:11 am

    Nice article. I am currently looking to finish a short introduction to the basics of historic Indian swaddling and cradleboard use in the Northeastern Woodlands. I am looking for more info regarding white opposition to the use of cradleboards, and this is the first article I have come across which has actually made mention of this. Thank you. Please, if you are able, send me info regarding research or historical notes of how cradleboards represented a tool of leverage in “civilizing” the Native Peoples. I am looking to use this information when commenting on Zeisberger’s reasoning of the loss of cradleboard practices among his 18th C. Delaware converts. It would be most appreciated.

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