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Getting from Here to There

Precious Cargo
Dakota, <i>Cradle Cover</i>, 19th century, c.1880, animal hide, quills, beads, ribbon, sequins, cloth
zoom Dakota, Cradle Cover, 19th century, c.1880, animal hide, quills, beads, ribbon, sequins, cloth


Can you guess what precious cargo was nestled safely inside this cover? This cradle cover gave protection and comfort to a baby. Combined with a board, it was a convenient way for a Native American mother to carry her child. She could wear the board on her back, tie it onto a horse, or fasten it to a travois.

A Dakota woman made this cover over a century ago. The Dakota people live on lands that are part of both the Great Plains and the Great Lakes/Woodlands regions of the United States. Traditionally, Plains Indians were nomads who depended on buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter. Tribes of the Great Lakes/Woodlands region hunted forest animals, fished, and gathered wild foods. Dakota culture and traditions include aspects of life in both regions.

How does this cradle cover show both Plains and Woodlands traditions? Take a close look and identify the various decorations. The flowers, butterflies, dragonflies, and birds are designs favored by the tribes of the Great Lakes/Woodlands region. The colors (especially red), the beaded border, and the geometric pattern on the back of the board are typical of Plains Indian art.

Who made this cover? We don’t know. But the technique, coloring, and intricate quillwork show that she was a master at her craft. With its fine detailing, the cover would have taken over a year to complete. Who did she make it for? For her own child, or the child of someone she knew very well.

Cradleboards are not commonly used today. However, they are still occasionally made for symbolic purposes—as a gift for a family’s first child or to recall traditions of the past. Today many parents use modern versions of the cradleboard, such as baby slings or backpacks, to transport their children.

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1. The color red, prominent on this cover, was often used by the Plains Indians.
2. Butterflies, flowers, and birds were designs popular with Woodlands Indians. The elk and buffalo heads are significant to Plains Indians.
3. This design is made of dyed porcupine quills. The artist folded and manipulated the individual quills to make decorative patterns.


October 2006