Saturday Art: Tribal Baby Carriers

Sioux soft cradle, 19th century

When a baby came into a tribe, there was a special present for it that the expectant family prepared – what the Europeans termed, from Narragansett tribes, the ‘papoose’.

While in other parts of the world some other nationalities developed the baby sling, we associate them with the American continent. Decorative as well as healthy design varies with the principal quality remaining the same, keeping the baby with the mother while she moved about. As a child on Okinawa, I saw not only mothers, but often older sisters, carrying the baby strapped firmly onto the back while the older person did her tasks.

Today we’re used to seeing many different nationalities wearing the baby carriers, but originally these had been developed by natives of this continent to give the baby comfort, the mother freedom of movement, and decorative art to everyday life.

Doll cradle - Created about 1800

A papoose (from the Algonquian papoos, meaning “child”) is an American English loanword whose present meaning is “a Native American Indian child” (regardless of tribe) or, even more generally, any child, usually used as a term of endearment, often in the context of the child’s mother. The word came originally from the Narragansett tribe. In 1643, Roger Williams recorded the word in his A Key Into the Language of America, helping to popularize it.[1]….

Cradle boards and other child carriers, which were used by Native American Indians and went by many names. In the United States and the United Kingdom, the term papoose is used to refer to a child carrier. [2]

Preparing for the baby required making a safe, soft carrier out of animal skins, but the beadwork to make it art were the family’s own. There are several of the carriers on display in museums, and I was delighted to see several, as well as a doll’s carrier, in the Museum of the Red River.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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