Introduction to Cradleboards
By: Susan Dlutkowski
In July of 2013 I attended a traditional arts gathering on Drummond Island in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There, I heard Earl Otchingwanigan speak about “The Language and Culture of the Cradleboard”. I knew that Earl was a respected Ojibwe elder and I was very interested to hear his presentation. I knew that cradleboards were used for holding infants, but I wondered:
Were they too confining?
Were they comfortable?
Are they still used?
Earl started by explaining the construction of a dikinaagan (cradleboard). He was also instructing another group at the gathering that was building cradleboards. He named several parts, such as the aagwiingwe’onaak -oon (the head protector) and the apizideyaakwa’igan -an (the foot brace). He held two beautiful black velvet bands, each beaded with traditional, colorful floral designs. Each of these miishiiginebizon -an were wrapped around the baby on the cradleboard, one covering the baby’s middle, the other around its legs and feet. With two bands, only the bottom one needed to be removed to change a diaper. These cloth bands were decorative since creating something beautiful for the baby was an important feature of the cradleboard. Infants and toddlers up to the age of three were put in cradleboards where they were kept safe, could sleep, or could observe the goings-on of their families.
Instead of spending time purposely stimulating their baby, families went about their activities; the baby was stimulated through quiet observation. Cradleboards could be hung by a strap so that babies were often at adult eye-level, receiving level eye-contact. This was considered important to a baby’s development and interaction with the group. At first, infants’ arms were swaddled by their sides. Later, arms were left outside of the wrapping. Mothers could sit with their legs outstretched, the cradleboard propped on their toes, so that the babies could see what their mothers were doing with their hands.
One man who attended the talk said that he and his wife used a cradleboard for their now seven-year-old daughter until she was three. She could be brought outside to safely watch wood-chopping and at the table she was at eye-level with her parents when the cradleboard was placed on a chair. The father said that his daughter would crawl to her cradleboard on the floor, for comfort. A woman at the presentation who was expecting her third child thought she would like to use a cradleboard for her new baby and was especially interested to hear of this father’s recent experiences.
I thoroughly enjoyed Earl’s presentation and was grateful for the opportunity to hear his first-hand knowledge of the cradleboard. I gained more of an understanding and a definite appreciation of the benefits of cradleboards. As an Ojibwe culture specialist, tradition bearer and scholar, Earl Otchingwanigan shares his knowledge, learned from family members in his childhood, and later from his own studies.