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Cradleboard exhibit showcases many styles and cultures of infant carriers

By Alyssa Nenemay

The People’s Center’s Education Director/Exhibit Coordinator Marie Torosian researched and contracted cradleboards throughout the US and Canada for the Cradleboard Exhibit. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) The People’s Center’s Education Director/Exhibit Coordinator Marie Torosian researched and contracted cradleboards throughout the US and Canada for the Cradleboard Exhibit. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

PABLO — The People’s Center’s latest “Cradleboard Exhibit” recounts cultural uses of the carrier, from its historical origin to its role in modern life. “I think it really highlights the craftsmanship our people still have today,” said the exhibit’s coordinator Marie Torosian.

Cradleboards are traditional infant carriers that are constructed of a sturdy wooden frame. Infants are securely laced and swaddled within the frame in a buckskin or cloth bag. Torosian said that moss was used to line the bag and absorb bodily fluids-much like a diaper.

Some designs even allowed for cradleboards to be suspended or propped against surfaces like trees or large rocks. This assured the child would remain in eye view and freed up their caretaker’s time for work without disrupting the bonding process.

Several of the cradleboards in the exhibit were made for use. Torosian included photos of the cradleboard’s pint size owners. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Several of the cradleboards in the exhibit were made for use. Torosian included photos of the cradleboard’s pint size owners. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

Aside from its functional uses, cradleboards had physical and mental benefits. Torosian said the swaddling bag provided security, much like a mother’s womb, but allowed for observation and stimulation of the baby’s surroundings. Some designs even provided spinal support or protection from the elements. As the child grew, the cradleboard taught restraint and patience.

Torosian has been researching and contracting cradleboards from all over the US and Canada for the 23 piece display. While most of the items were submitted locally, visitors have an opportunity to see cradleboard models from the Apache and Hopi tribes as well.

Although the display features modern cradleboards, The People’s Center’s museum is home to several historical cradleboard displays available for viewing. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Although the display features modern cradleboards, The People’s Center’s museum is home to several historical cradleboard displays available for viewing. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

“Cradleboards were used by tribes all over and throughout my research it was interesting to see all the similarities,” said Torosian. “Tribes had different designs because of their climate, but we all used similar fibers to make the cradleboards.”

Torosian’s inspiration for the display came from an overwhelming interest of callers asking the center to host classes on how to make them. “A while back, cradleboards were hung on the wall for decoration but now you’re seeing where people have decided to take it off the wall and use it. It’s not a wall display, it’s who we are,” said Torosian.

Most of the cradleboards featured in the exhibit were used and include photos of its pint size owners. “I really wanted to include photos of the cradleboards being used because each one has its own story,” said Torosian.

One of the stories includes a cradleboard Bill Swaney made for his first-born daughter. Aside from carrying his daughter, the board and its detailed beadwork won blue ribbons in last years’ Missoula Fair.

Salish Kootenai College instructor Bill Swaney submitted a cradleboard he made for his first-born daughter. The board won blue ribbons in last year’s Missoula Fair. (Alyssa Nenemay photo) Salish Kootenai College instructor Bill Swaney submitted a cradleboard he made for his first-born daughter. The board won blue ribbons in last year’s Missoula Fair. (Alyssa Nenemay photo)

To coincide with infant swaddling theme, the exhibit also includes “bootleg” or as it’s traditionally called “moss-bag” displays. A bootleg is a swaddling sack that allows the infant to be laced and secured but does not include a frame like the cradleboard. Traditionally mothers made the bootleg during pregnancy and attached good feelings, thoughts, and well wishes they had for their soon-to-come infant.

The Cradleboard Exhibit will be on display until June and includes the work of Lucy Vanderburg, Maggie Sheridan, and Karen Coffee. While the exhibit features modern cradleboards, The People’s Center’s museum is home to historically crafted boards from the 18th and 19th Centuries. For more information, call The People’s Center at (406) 675-0160.

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