Spotlight On . . . Ute Cradleboards

The exhibit Written on the Land: Ute Voices, Ute History will enable us to share Ute history and contemporary life through text, images, videos, interactives, and artifacts—the latter from History Colorado’s comprehensive Ute artifact collection and generous loans of contemporary items from the tribes. One of the most interesting Ute artifact types is the cradleboard; Ute people used cradleboards historically, and many still use them today. And, while many native people have used cradleboards, Ute cradleboards are distinctive for their basketry, tanned hides, and beadwork.

Woman with her son in a modern cradleboard

Waynoka Whiteskunk with her son Koda Whiteskunk in a modern cradleboard, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Towaoc, Colorado, 2016.

We’ve learned from publications and consultation that, most often, grandmothers or older female relatives make cradleboards after the baby’s birth. Crafted with love and care, cradleboards keep babies safe while allowing mothers to easily transport them. Tribal cultural advisors explained to us that cradleboards also let babies better see what’s happening around them and have good eye contact with people speaking to them.

The most common type of cradleboard, predominant by the 1870s, was made with a wooden board cut into an oval that was broader at the top than at the bottom, which was squared off. People made the earliest of willow, preferring Ponderosa pine later on. This type of cradleboard supported the child’s head and, although heavy, could be transported more easily on a horse. The board was covered with brain-tanned buckskin (Ute women were known for their hide-tanning skills), and the top of the board’s back had fringe.

The mother placed the baby in a pouch attached to the front of the board. Once there, the mother secured the baby by lacing up the front and fastening a buckskin band across the baby’s chest. That band, the upper part of the board, and sometimes the pouch were surfaces that skilled Ute beadworkers could decorate. Often a mother suspended buttons, bells, or other small objects at the top edge of the pouch to entertain the baby.

The buckskin on a boy’s cradleboard is traditionally white, while a girl’s is yellow—colors created by mixing clay and water, sometimes after smoking the clay. Brain tanning also created white buckskin. A boy’s cradleboard might have a hole in the front of the pouch, as seen in the one shown here, which is also on view in the exhibit.

historic Ute family studio portrait

Ah-ne-pitch, Tomas-cita, and Ma-rez, in family studio portrait, Denver, Colorado, 1896–99.

You can see basketry skills in the sunshades attached to the top of cradleboards. Ute people traditionally made sunshades of twined willow—something that sets Ute cradleboards apart from those made by other tribes. A kerchief might provide even more protection for the baby. Other times, the sunshade was made of whatever material was available, even shaped window screen. Beadwork often adorned the edge of the sunshade.

A mother placed loops and a strap across the back of the cradleboard so she could wear it over her shoulders—freeing her hands for gathering plants or performing any other tasks. She could lean the cradleboard against a tree or suspend it from low branches using the straps. She could soothe the baby by rocking the cradleboard gently back and forth.

In an earlier, simpler version, instead of using a board the maker bent willow into an oval frame, with the top wider than the bottom. She attached slats to the top and bottom of the frame and placed it inside a buckskin cover. Often, one end of the cover was longer, so it could be folded up and secured into a pouch where the baby could be placed. The early cradleboards also had sunshades made of willow or snowberry.

Many mothers still use cradleboards—some made traditionally, others incorporating newer materials such as cotton fabric. In both cases, they’re still made with great love and reverence. In Cortez, Colorado, near the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, you can buy the wooden board for the base of a cradleboard at the local hardware store.

In another interesting variation, Ute women often made smaller versions of cradleboards. They gave them to young girls to use as toys and, more importantly, to use as teaching tools so girls could start learning how to care for babies. These cradleboards had all the elements of their full-sized counterparts: beadwork, willow sunbonnets, and dangling treasures. As seen by examples on view in Written on the Land, they’re also every bit as beautiful.

If you enjoyed reading this, be sure to check out the rest of the articles in our most recent issue of Colorado Heritage magazine here!