Indian cradle baskets highlight ‘Precious Cargo’ exhibit
Many Native Americans believe that, when making a cradle basket, the weaver must be in a positive, healthy state of mind so as not to visit ill spirits upon the newborn child. A baby belongs to the Creator for the first 10 days of life, and his or her connection to the Earth is tenuous at best.
It’s symbolism and tradition like this that makes the Chico Museum exhibit, “Precious Cargo: California Indian Cradle Baskets and Childbirth Traditions,” an experience that will appeal to a wide range of visitors.
The Chico Museum is the first to host the traveling exhibit, which was assembled by the Marin Museum of the American Indian and will be on tour for three years.
The displays are of cradle boards or baskets, but they’re all presented in the context of native beliefs involving birth and child-rearing. Even the carriers themselves, though inanimate, have a spirit, explains one weaver featured in a DVD that accompanies the exhibit.
Paul Russell, curator of the Chico Museum, said that while the traveling exhibit features about 30 tribal regions, he coordinated some added displays that are unique to the area that is now Butte County. “We have a selection of real local things,” he said, adding that besides the Mountain Maidu and Atsugewi people, the Mechoopda tribe assembled a substantial collection that includes both cradle baskets and photographs of tribal workshops where the techniques were taught.
The craft has regained popularity with both native men and women, as tribes relearn the skills that were, like their language, largely lost through assimilation into the culture of whites.
The cradle baskets on display are as diverse as the tribes that used them. Some—like those of the Yani and Wintun—carry a seated infant, while others are designed for older babies in a flat-back position.
Other designs feature soft mattresses made of tule. Many are adorned with glass beads for the child’s amusement or to ward off negative spirits. Others have designs woven into the sunshades based on the baby’s gender—zig-zags or diamonds for girls, straight or V shapes for boys.
“There’s a lot of symbolism,” Russell said.
Even after they were displaced to mission schools in the early part of the 20th century, Native American girls, referred to as “Ossatti: little women,” carried their dolls on their backs in miniature cradle baskets. It was in this way that they learned how to lace a child in and transport him or her safely.
As the European influence increased, the American Indians began to add such elements as calico fabrics and glass beads to the cradle baskets.
In the short film narrated by Peter Coyote, modern-day cradle makers talk of the difficulty in obtaining traditional materials like reeds and willow shoots. Development has eaten up many areas, and other gathering lands are marked “no trespassing,” even to native peoples.
It’s not at all uncommon for Indian mothers and fathers to use the baskets today, either as stand-alone carriers or by placing one in a modern stroller. These parents believe in swaddling fussy babies and find that using the secure, womb-like traditional carriers keeps them calm and happy.
Native babies went everywhere their mothers did, and some carriers came equipped with a wooden stake at the bottom so they could be stuck in the ground while their parents worked.
Russell said he expects the exhibit to draw diverse visitors, from schoolchildren on up. "The Native American community was really pleased that we were doing something like this," he said. "It’s their story, and it’s not just somebody putting together something from a white person’s view."