Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning
Martha Mae (Collins) Manning, holding her son, Lindsey, in 1954.

Baby Baskets and Cradleboards: Reclaiming the Medicine of Traditional Mothering

Sarah Sunshine Manning

To the Native mother, our children have forever been the center of our world, our most sacred beings, and the earth dwelling spirits closest to our Creator.  We adore our babies, and historically, our motherly predecessors demonstrated this profound love through limitless and deeply affectionate actions. Mothers were armed with an unparalleled love medicine known to bolster spirits, impart valuable spiritual teachings, and most importantly, build entire nations. 

Enveloping our precious babies with beautifully decorated cradle boards was commonplace, as was dressing them in intricately embellished clothing and baby moccasins. Conferring them with sweet and honorable names was a communal honor and privilege. 

"Jo Jo" and mother Hillary Camas, Warm Springs, Wasco, Paiute, in 2013. Photo courtesy Sarah Sunshine Manning

Generations of tender and conscious parenting produced nations of children who were grounded, mindful, and confident. The role of “mother” was a vital affair to the future of tribal nations, and among the highest of honors and privileges a woman could have.

“[A mother] was looked to for the endowment of her child with nature’s gifts and powers. She was the spiritual teacher of the child, as well as its tender nurse, and she brought its developing soul before the “Great Mystery” as soon as she was aware of its coming.” –Ohiyesa, (The Winner)/Charles Eastman, Wahpeton Dakota

But as with all areas of tribal life, the time honored traditions of mothering were abruptly disrupted. Practices that formerly sustained nations were attacked by the assimilationist policies of the federal government. In the late nineteenth century, tradition and spirituality were forbidden on reservations, and punishable by law in a Court of Indian Offenses. Rations could be withheld from families for practicing traditional ways, and jail time was common for traditional leaders. Women were given strict guidelines, forcing them to conform to Western standards of the domestic woman.

To compound the already devastating cultural assault, children were taken from families and thrust into the brutal culture shock of Indian boarding schools.  Children accustomed to the protection of loving mothers and the gentle redirection of parents were stunned into the “Kill the Indian Save the Man,” environment of physical beatings, verbal lashings, and public shaming.  Beautifully braided hair was ridiculed and callously cut, then replaced by short bobs for girls or military crew cuts for boys. Moccasins and traditional clothing were thrown away, and replaced by military style uniforms and boots. Traditional names with great meaning were replaced with foreign biblical names. The loving connection between parent and child was severed, and our world was changed forever.

The reverberating effects cultural genocide can still be felt throughout Indian country, and our communities struggle to put the pieces of parenting back together. But if we recognize the power in what our ancestors built upon for generations with the development of exceptionally effective parenting styles, there is so much to be gained by revisiting those practices and reincorporating them into tribal communities today. The knowledge of traditional mothering is still there, tucked away for us to rediscover, reclaim, and reinvigorate our communities with. 

Here are just a few practices of traditional mothering, and some of their compelling outcomes for community and child. And while this list does not even begin to scratch the surface of the limitless love of our ancestral matriarchs, perhaps at the very least can be a start to recognizing the potential of who we can become again as mothers, and as nations. 

1. Moss Bags, Baby Baskets, and Cradleboards
Throughout their first year, babies spent a good portion of the day in a moss bag or baby basket in their first months, and then eventually graduating to a cradleboard. Aside from their practicality, each swaddling design symbolized that children are prized, protected, and loved immensely. This was made evident in the hours upon hours, days upon days, and multiple people required to create them. From the wooden or willow frame, the woven shade, the leather covering, the intricate beadwork and quillwork, and the heartfelt prayers placed in each stitch of design, it was made evident that babies were cherished to the highest degree. Observant young girls who would one day become mothers were shown how to provide for and love a child of their own in the future. The swaddling of the baby additionally gave them the feeling of security and comfort. Babies could drift off into a comforting sleep, being in a constant state of embrace. 

Children also learned patient observation and mindfulness while in the cradleboard, having only their senses to rely on for entertainment. They would sit in stillness, watching their mothers work, listening to the sounds of their environment or their mother’s lullabies, taking in the fragrances around them, and feeling the sun, wind, warmth, and coolness on their face. There was no other option than to be mindful. 

2. Moccasins
Similar to the intricately decorated cradleboards, beautifully made moccasins signified that the children were beloved. Babies and small children quickly grew out of their moccasins which had to be replaced regularly. This fact did not stand as a hindrance to the many tribes who even went so far as to embellish the bottoms of baby moccasins.  To protect their feet while adorning them beautifully signified the path that lie ahead, beautifully protected and guided by family members who loved and honored them without end.   

3. Neatly fixing children’s hair
While this practice varied from tribe to tribe, hair was recognized throughout Indian Country as a part of one’s spirit.  For this reason, much care was taken in fixing children’s hair. Boys and girls learned to sit patiently while mom braided or fixed their hair, and the mother to child bond was strengthened daily during that shared time together. Children also learned that caring for one’s hair was a sacred responsibility. 

4. Gentle, yet firm redirection
Spanking was a practice foreign to most, if not all tribes.  Children were, instead, trained through gentle redirection, then explanation. This method was most practical, as children learned that problem solving happens best through patience and understanding. Parents recognized that showing patience and understanding to our children begets more understanding, so explanation was the only reasonable way to raise children to be thoughtful. 

“Our children are very carefully taught to be good.” –Docmidoni, (Shell Flower)/Sarah Winnemucca, Northern Paiute

Thankfully, the much esteemed “golden years” of indigenous life ways and traditional mothering aren’t so far removed. Many families have safe guarded many of those time honored traditions of parenting, and perhaps even unknowingly. They are the stronghold of our communities, our sources of communal hope, and they truly are all among us, living humble lives, and still raising their children so affectionately. 

Today, as many moms may agree, rearing our children is not so simple. We are not raising them in the same society as our ancestors, and we are lacking the same cultural understandings to raise them as mindfully as our ancestors did. Today, being a mom is among the most challenging responsibilities on earth. Being a single mom- well, to say it is considerably more challenging would be an understatement.

But as a firm believer in the tenets of traditional parenting, I am compelled to believe that if something worked for tribal communities back then, there is no reason why conscious parenting by way of the traditional practices would not work today. Among the strongest forms of social change and activism in Indian country is for Native women to be great mothers – one conversation, one woman, and one young girl at a time, then, we can raise strong nations once again.

Sarah Sunshine Manning (Shoshone-Paiute, Chippewa-Cree) is a mother, educator, activist, and an advocate for youth.

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