Carry-on babies

Fun exhibit of traditional Native American cradleboards at Chico State

“Woman Carrying Baby in Cradleboard on Back” (1907)

“Woman Carrying Baby in Cradleboard on Back” (1907)

Cradleboards: Carrying on the Traditions runs through June 15, at the Museum of Anthropology.
Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology
Chico State
MLIB 180
Hours: Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Cradleboards: Carrying on the Traditions—the absorbing new exhibit at Chico State’s Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology—is folded into the museum’s long-running main exhibit, Coming Home: Ishi’s Long Journey. It’s a fitting match-up of two installations focused on the culture of local Native Americans.

“This is the first time we’ve experimented with a second, smaller exhibit in the same space,” said Chico State anthropology professor Stacy Schaefer. Schaefer is also co-director of the anthropology museum as well as co-coordinator of the university’s museum studies certificate program.

The cradleboard exhibit features numerous black-and-white photographs from the late 1800s and early 1900s of babies in the handmade carriers used by Native Americans. There are also some examples of the actual cradleboards, many donated by the family of the late historian and anthropologist Dorothy Morehead Hill. The exhibit offers an emotional counterpoint to the Ishi installation, Schaefer observed.

“Ishi’s life story is very tragic,” said Schaefer. On the contrary, the cradleboard exhibit offers joy and hope. “A number of Native Americans are still alive and well in this area, and they are keeping traditions going, and the cradleboard is one way [to keep their traditions alive].” Schaefer noted that there is “a contemporary resurgence” in the making and use of cradleboards.

Local cradleboard-maker Susan Campbell, of Mountain Maidu and Pit River (spelled “Pitt” River in historical records) heritage, appears prominently in Bound to Tradition, an extremely informative 38-minute looped video that plays just inside the entrance to the museum. Campbell, who was raised in a cradleboard, also served as a consultant to Schaefer’s museum exhibit planning class, which worked on the cradleboard installation.

“View of a Pitt River Indian Papoose—Achomawi” (ca. 1900)

Photos courtesy of CSUC Special Collections

“Western scientists originally thought it would limit [babies’] motor development,” said Schaefer of the longtime Native American tradition, “but, to the contrary, being swaddled and put in a cradleboard is very comforting. It makes babies feel secure and safe.”

There is not a single baby in any of the photos on display who looks unhappy; rather, most look very content in their cradleboards as they are carried on their mother’s back, held in their mother’s arms or propped up against a tree. One picture—“View of a Pitt River Indian Papoose—Achomawi,” taken circa 1900, depicts a smiling, chubby-cheeked baby who looks positively thrilled in his cradleboard.

Most of the cradleboards on display, including one on loan from Sandra Knight and the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria, are a form of basketry, Schaefer pointed out. Another, from the Navajo tribe (in the American Southwest), is made of wooden planks.

“Each style, form and design of cradleboards represents what tribe you are from,” Schaefer said. And as she points out during an interview in the Bound to Tradition video, family members go out long before a baby is born to select and give thanks for just the right materials from nature—such as redbud or willow branches—to make a cradleboard for their particular baby.

The cradleboard, said Schaefer, “is a way to embody culture in newborns and raise them to know their cultural traditions and the members of their family. They see the people around them from eye level, not lying down. And they are not isolated [in a crib]—they are in the center of the family.” (The card accompanying one of the photographs in the exhibit compares the interactive freedom that babies in cradleboards have to the “prison-like cribs in mainstream American society.”)

“In every culture, children are very precious. They bring new life and hope; they are the carriers of the culture,” said Schaefer. “And so what a wonderful way for them to embark on life’s journey.

“The care and attention to making the cradleboard, and the comfort inside of it—it’s almost like a womb, in a way.”