Navajo Cradles


When a child is born it is wrapped in a sheep-pelt, woolly side in, and placed between the fireplace and west side of the hogan at the spot designated as hunaba'ji. The old women of the neighborhood then make a rude canopy or shelter of cedar, or other pliable boughs, with which to cover the head of the child and protect it from sparks of the fire. This canopy, called a face cover, consists of three bows, one as a base resting on the ground (1), the second (2) placed upright and attached with cords to the ends of the first, while the third (3) extends as a brace from upright to base, and is secured with cords at the center of the upright bow and center of bow at base. A cord (4) stretched from end to end of the bow at the base completes this temporary canopy, which is held in position by the weight of the child resting on this cord. A blanket or cloth, and in wealthier families a tanned goatskin, is thrown over this framework to insure against injury from the sparks of the fireplace. It is of interest that the legends designate the first, or bow at the base, as shaitqa (a word of no special meaning); the second, or upright bow, as natsi'lid (rainbow); the third, or brace, as natsi'ilid agudi (the curved rainbow).


Face cover

The object of improvising this rude cradle is obviously to protect the frail and tender limbs of the newborn babe; hence it is employed for the first twenty-five days after its birth. The cradle is now supplemented by a small blanket for a pillow, and a harder foundation in the shape of twigs, which are peeled of their bark, laced together with four strings, and placed under the child, which still occupies the place in the hogan mentioned in the preceding paragraph. This second cradle is known as:

The laced cradle

The laced twig cradle is employed for about two months and then displaced by a third type, which is employed for a period of another month or so, and finally makes way for the cradle proper, or fourth type. The bottom of this cradle consists of a single board, which accounts for its name, the whole cradle, while the board on the final cradle is split in two and then laced together, so that it is sufficiently designated by the cradle. As both types are similar in construction, and are similarly used, the following applies to both, with such exceptions as are noted. The wood used for the various parts of the cradle is such as may be easily hewn to the desired thinness; hence, cottonwood, pine, willow, weeping willow, and pinon, are ordinarily employed, though recently some avail themselves of boards from a coffee or dry goods box. However, the wood of a tree riven by lightning, or broken by the winds, or against which a bear has rubbed himself, is never used for the cradle, as that may prove injurious, hence: a tree riven by lightning, a tree curved or broken by the winds, a bear's tree, or which he has used in rubbing.

The upper part of the boards is cut out in the shape of a frustrum, which gives them an appearance akin to a long bootjack. Across the width of the board, on the bottom side, a narrow strip is added which, together with the small blanket head-raise on the upper side, is secured with thongs through holes provided for this purpose in the boards and strip. (All thongs used for lacing and the loops are of buckskin, or tanned goat-skin if available, otherwise of wool cord.) A small hole is provided in the lower part of the third type of cradle to allow for a passage of the urine, a provision which in the fourth type is maintained by lacing the boards loosely in four places in the center. A foot-rest in the shape of a rounded or triangular board is lashed to the lower part of the cradle, and the sides of the boards are provided with eight holes each, with two holes in the footboard, to receive the lacing loops inserted alternately, so that the first loop is passed through the first and third holes, the second through the second and fourth holes, and so on down the line. Above these lacing loop holes two additional holes are bored to receive the bows for the canopy. These bows are constructed of thin and smoothened scrub oak, cedar, or other convenient wood, four of which are laced together with four buckskin thongs to form a single bow, and then tied loosely to the cradle to allow of a free movement back and forth when inspecting the child. The bow in use on the third cradle is transferred by many to the final cradle. (Some employ a single wide or two fairly wide bows at present.)

The single decorative feature of the cradle consists in a tassel of fringed buckskin (now leather), which is knotted and passed through the hole in the upper corner of the boards. A setting of turquoise was inserted near this tassel when the occupant was a boy, with a setting of white shell for a girl. Silver buttons have now displaced this setting.

The bottom of the cradle is then lined with the plushy bark of the cliff-rose which, from its use in the cradle, is identical in name (awaets'al. This word originally designated the receptacle in which to lay the infant to be carried on the back). A small blanket is laid over this bark, the child placed upon it, and the ends of the blanket securely fastened about its limbs, leaving only its head visible, which rests upon a blanket or cloth pillow placed over the head-raise. The child is now strapped to the cradle by means of the lacing cord, which is passed from the upper right hand loop down the line in zigzag fashion, and finally through the loop on the footboard. (In type No.3 the lacing and carrying cords are frequently not used, though holes are provided for the lacing loops.) A cloth or, in wealthier families, a piece of well tanned goatskin, covers the bow and upper part of the cradle, and is secured to its sides near the base of the bow. This canopy affords both shelter and protection, and may be raised or lowered at will.

The three types of cradle first mentioned are discarded after of use and made anew for each occasion. The fourth type, however, is preserved for future use whenever a child has been successfully weaned from it. Some, therefore, designate it the cradle in which it grew up, in addition to awae'ts'al, the cradle and awae'ts'al aqididil, the cradle (in which the boards strike each other because they are lashed together loosely). When death overtakes the child in any cradle no further use is had for it as it is injurious, and the cradle is then buried with the child. Previously, however, all knots are untied, the thongs washed, and all parts of the cradle are placed near the child in its grave. The convenience of the cradle may be gleaned from its varied use. At home it may be leaned against the walls of the hogan, or placed anywhere under the direct and constant supervision of the mother. When astride, she places the cradle with the child across her lap over the pommel of the saddle, while afoot she may rest the cradle in her arms, or slip it over her back and carry it by means of the carrying cord attached to the sides of the cradle and passed over her forehead and shoulders. No attempt has therefore been made to substitute foreign products for the native contrivance.

To remove the possibility of harm from other children, or the bite of red ants, some parents construct a swing in which to lay the cradle. This is a flat board punctured at the corners with two holes each to receive the cords, one of which is tied at each corner. Two long cords are then passed below the board and secured there with the remnant of cord at each corner, while the four ends of the long cords are brought together over the center of the swing and tied there in a knot. To this knot another cord is attached and the swing suspended from a beam in the hogan, or the limb of a tree outside, beyond the reach of children and vermin. Occasionally the mother gives it a swing, and may thus go about her work undisturbed. The swing is called baby swing, or the suspended swing with the cradle.

In legendary descriptions the two boards in the rear of the cradle are constructed of dark water. They are held in position by a piece of a curved rainbow at the bottom (of water). The foot-rest is constructed of basic sun-red, in shape similar to the present type. The decorative fringes at the top of each board were made of dark rain streaks. The four staves or bows of the canopy were laced with white rainbow; blue rainbow; yellow rainbow, and dark rainbow; and the bow itself, constructed of the dawn; the Skyblue; the evening twilight, and darkness. The lacing loops, eight in number, consisted of rainrays; the lacing cord for the front, of zigzag lightning, and the carrying cord, of sun-rays. Pgs. 467-473

An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language; 1910, The Franciscan Fathers.

This did not mean as much to him then as did the cradleboard his father made for him while they were at this place. Two straight pine boards about five inches longer than the baby were laced together in the center, and a small board was laced at the bottom to form a footboard. Then a thin lath of ash was bent across the top, just above where his head would be, to hold the covers away from his face. Smaller sidepieces were fastened to the bottom boards and holes were bored in them so that buckskin thongs could be threaded through them and, when laced back and forth, would hold the baby safely in place. A thick pad of away-tsal cotton and the two kid pelts completed Klah's baby bed, which form that time was his own private property and would never be used by any other child. A strong leather strap was fastened to the top in a loop that would reach across his mother's chest, enabling her to carry the cradle on her back. This gave her the use of her hands while carrying the baby and was a great convenience when riding horseback. The cradle also kept the baby from crawling into the open fire or coming to harm in other ways. Pgs. 78-79

Hosteen Klah, Navajo Medicine Man and Sand Painter; 1964, Franc Johnson Newcomb.

She then began to recall a story her "grandfather," Lassos-a-warrior, had told them on winter nights, a story to which she had listened many times between waking and sleeping. It was the tale of the War Gods which were said to be twin children of the Sun and Earth Mother. Because they had the most wonderful parents in the world, they were endowed with all the powers of earth and heaven. Even as newborn babies the cradleboards in which they were laced showed the supernatural gifts and predicted the extraordinary career of the two children. The myth had it that they were born in winter, and that one had been bathed in ice, the other in snow. This severe treatment had made them strong and healthy from the very moment of their birth. Gods who had acted as midwives to their mother gave each child a marvelous cradleboard, shaped just like those in which Navajo children are carried to this day. The cradleboard of the elder child had the name Dark Water. The two boards which formed its foundation were made of the Sun's turquoise earstrings. The bowed board at the top over the baby's face was a rainbow. When the cradle was ready, the baby was laid on a mirage pillow and covered with blankets of darkness, dawn, blue-rising-from-the-east-at-sunset, yellow-evening-light, and mirage. The child under these was tied in with side lacings of zigzag lightning. These were caught by a loose central string of the same substance, and over all sunrays were thrown. The cradle of the younger twin was not very different, except in the position of the colors, and the strings which were of heat lightning. Its name was Blue Water. Pg. 43-44

Dezba: Woman of the Desert; 1939, Gladys A. Reichard.

The Navajo woman rears a large number of babies without benefit of our modern paraphernalia - bassinet, bathinet, dropside crib, bottle sterilizer, electric milk warmer, baby buggy, Taylor tot, and so forth. She builds an awetsal (baby bed) of wooden boards to which she straps her infant with leather laces. This she carries on her back or across her lap when she is in the saddle. When she leaves her papoose alone, she knows he is firmly tied in the cradle and that there is no fear of his being smothered or strangled by bedding. If she wishes, she can stand her cradle against a wall or tree while she attends to family chores. She can even hang it from a tree if she finds it more convenient. She has no diaper problem, for she dresses her baby in pair of pants which consists of two legs connected only with a string, belt, or band a the waistline and without any crotch or seat. Of course, tying the baby's head to a board makes it flat on the back - brachycephalic. Pgs. 177-178

Navajos, Gods, Tom-toms; By S.H. Babington, 1950.

Cradleboards ('awe tsa'l) of the supernaturals-Changing Woman, Monster Slayer, Child-of-the-water-were prototypes of the modern baby carrier. The lengthwise boards and footrests were of sunbeam or sunglow; the arch over the head of rainbow, the lacings of zigzag, flash, or forked lightning; the children were wrapped in clouds and covered with Skies-Darkness, Dawn, Blue Sky, Yellow-evening-light, Sunbeam. A rainstreamer was the fringe of the top cover; there were carrying straps of sunbeam, pillows of Mirage and Heat (tla'h; Matthews 1897, pp. 106, 231; Haile 1938b, pp. 85, 91; Goddard, p. 149; Wheelwright 1942, p. 74).

Navajo Religion, Vol II; Gladys A. Reichard, 1950