Design meant to echo a woman’s womb
“Teaching this class has been such a big honor for me, and I think the reason why is knowing that cradleboard making is going to be passed down, and that’s really important to me,” Sara Barton said.
In an effort to help preserve and nurture the tradition, Barton has been teaching a cradleboard-making class at the Gathering Center (which is located on the Burns Paiute Reservation) since January.
Cradleboards are traditional, protective carriers that were used by various Native American tribes to transport children ranging in age from infancy to 2.
Styles of cradleboards varied from tribe-to-tribe, as did the traditions and customs concerning their use.
Traditional Northern Paiute cradleboards were made from small, willow sticks that were woven together with split willow strings and attached to a long, oval frame made of heavy willow. The board was then covered with buckskin or canvas that laced up in the front to hold the child in place.
Barton said cradleboards were designed to echo the “warmth and security” of a mother’s womb, and she compared them to modern-day swaddling blankets.
A shade, made of very fine willows woven together, was attached to the top of the cradleboard to keep light out of the baby’s eyes and protect him/her if the board tipped over. The shade was decorated with a pattern in yarn that identified the baby’s gender, and a blanket could be draped over the shade while the baby slept.
A tie, fastened to the side of the board, fit over the mother’s forehead or around her shoulders, allowing her to carry the baby on her back while she completed tasks or chores.
Barton explained that cradleboards basically allowed the baby to be with the mother all the time. And she stressed the importance of that closeness toward the baby’s happiness and wellbeing.
Three different sizes of cradleboards were used to carry children as they grew from infants to toddlers. And Barton said some children would try to crawl back into their cradleboards even after they outgrew them because the boards offered a sense of security.
Barton said families are still using cradleboards to carry children during powwows and gatherings. But most modern mothers carry the cradleboards in their arms, instead of on their backs.
“It’s amazing how many young mothers you see using the cradleboards,” Barton said.
A ‘dying art’
But, locally, knowledge of cradleboard construction was diminishing.
Barton learned the craft from Burns Paiute Tribal Elder Minerva Soucie. And, when Soucie passed away, Barton and 96-year-old Tribal Elder Rena Beers were among an increasingly-diminishing number of tribe members who mastered the cultural tradition.
Recognizing that the craft was on the verge of extinction, Tracy Kennedy, who coordinates youth prevention programs and juvenile services for the Burns Paiute Tribe, applied for a grant through the Harney County Cultural Coalition to nurture the “dying art.”
In the grant application, Kennedy wrote that, “Traditional Northern Paiute cradleboard techniques have been passed down through face-to-face interaction over many generations. Sadly, the practice is in danger of being lost, as only a handful of people currently maintain the knowledge to pass onto future generations. At most, the Burns Paiute Tribe has only four traditional cradleboard masters, one of which is willing to share her teachings to carry on this incredible artistry.”
Kennedy applied for the grant in November 2013 and received $1,100 in funding the following month.
Because she was eager to share the knowledge that she acquired from Soucie, Barton said she was “more than happy” when Kennedy asked her to teach a six-month cradleboard class.
About the class
The cradleboard class got under way in January 2014, when participants learned how to identify and gather the proper willows.
The willows were selected from various locations, including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. And they had to be picked during the winter because that’s when it’s easiest to remove the bark.
In February, students focused on cleaning and scraping the willows, which were later used for the cradleboards’ backing and shade.
Weaving began in March, as participants began constructing cradleboard frames. And canvas material was fitted around the frames in April.
Barton explained that the class used canvas instead of buckskin because it’s less expensive and an easier material to learn with.
The class began attaching willow shades to the covered frames in May. And, by the time the class concluded on June 2, many students finished their cradleboards by adding fringes and beadwork to the sides and back.
Although the formal class concluded, Barton said she plans to continue coaching participants who have yet to complete their projects.
“Some have finished, and some haven’t. And that’s OK,” Barton said. “I want to see this continue and not discourage anybody by setting a time limit on it.”
Barton explained that cradleboard making is “a process,” adding that, “There’s a lot to remember.”
However, she said, “It’s all enjoyable for me.”
Barton emphasized the importance of maintaining a positive attitude during all phases of the project. In fact, she said she won’t even gather materials if she’s angry or upset.
“I don’t want to put that into my work,” she explained.
Preserving the tradition
Kennedy said that, although not everyone will complete a cradleboard, as many as 70 different tribe members have been involved in some phase of the cradleboard-making process.
And, in some cases, multiple generations took the class together.
For example, Shelley Richards crafted a cradleboard with her grandson, Truston Snapp.
Regarding Snapp, Barton said, “My heart soars when I see what he has accomplished.”
Barton said it’s difficult to describe how much teaching the class has meant to her.
“It brought a sense of happiness,” she said. “People were talking and smiling. It’s so healing for me to see what the cradleboard class brought out. It was very special.”
She added, “One thing that I found that was so interesting about doing this class was that I was hearing stories from different students about how their moms or their grandmothers can remember family members making cradleboards. The stories were just coming down, and it was fascinating.”