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Schurz residents get grant from NAC to “carry” on Paiute and Shoshone tradition.
Photo: Charlie Johnston (Nevada State Museum, Carson City)
The Nevada Arts Council recently granted Master artist Patricia Hicks and apprentice Angela Hernandez, both of Schurz, $3,181 to create Shoshone Paiute Buckskin and Willow Cradleboards. Following is a comprehensive description of the American Indian tradition of cradleboards.
Western Shoshone babies, when born, were placed in a cradleboard called a koh’noh. There were two types of cradleboards. The boat basket was used by the newborn right after it was born. The hoop basket was used once the baby’s neck muscles were strong enough to hold its head up. The baby would spend its first year in the basket, or until the baby began to walk.
The cradleboard provided a secure and safe environment for the small baby. The baby was kept in the cradleboard at all times. This helped to keep the child’s backbone and legs straight, further strengthen the neck muscles, and provide an opportunity for the infant to be visually and emotionally stimulated by his environment and family.
The child was able to be carried on his mother’s back using a strap attached to the back of the cradleboard. This way, the mother could be free to work with her hands. Using the strap, they sometimes hung or propped the basket up, so that the mother could also be within the child’s view and communicate with the child. When tired, the infant could be rocked to sleep. Then the child could be laid down without being disturbed.
Since willows could only be collected in the winter months, it was necessary for the basket maker to plan ahead. Once spring arrived, the willows would have too much water in them and could easily break.
The Shoshone used a river willow for the boat cradleboard, which was prepared after the child was born. It was an open-twined weave forming an elliptical head guard for the infant. A rabbit-skin lining was placed inside to cushion the baby’s head and body, and buckskin laces were used to tie the baby in. Wild dogwood or rosewood willows were used to make the frames for the hoop cradleboard.
Once gathered, the larger willows were scraped for the cradleboard frame and backing. The smaller willows would be used for the shade. The other willows would be split, simultaneously, in three parts to be used for weft thread. The same process was used for making other baskets.
Using a warming method, the hoop frame was formed by tying the top and bottom frames together. After forming the frame, it was tied down to a flat surface for a couple weeks, to prevent it from twisting or bending out of shape. Willows were cut to fit the frame.
Shoshones used a horizontal willow backing. The willows were fastened together by one or two vertical willows, using buckskin strips. Once the frame was ready, the ends of the willow backing were fit against the frame and attached by wrapping the willow backing with buckskin strips. The frame was then be covered with buckskin.
The frame was placed on the buckskin. The buckskin was fitted around the frame by pulling it snugly towards the center. The center, top, and bottom seam was marked. Then the buckskin was cut and sewn with specialized bone needles and sinew thread. The outside strings and loops were then added to the front flaps, using a bone awl to make holes and rabbit-skin batting was placed inside for a cushion.
A willow shade was added to the basket. The willow shade was made using river willows. It was woven in an open-twined weave fashion, using a decreasing procedure while weaving.
First, the pattern at the top was made, using a naturally dyed willow weft. The pattern depended on the gender of the baby. A diamond was used for a girl’s shade, and diagonal lines were used for a boy’s. This shade not only provided protection from the sun, but also for the child’s face and head if the cradle was knocked over. The cover provided protection from the wind. The shade was attached to the outside of the basket. It was threaded through two holes and tied onto the backside.
The cradleboard was decorated by adding fringes to the sides and back. A strap was attached to the back of the cradleboard for carrying. A separate buckskin piece was attached to the bottom, so that it could be removed if soiled.
Today, the cradleboard is still being used. Many families have other tribal members or relatives make the cradle for them since many families have not kept up the tradition of making the cradle.
Modern changes have been made in the construction of the cradleboard. Many are covered with a canvas-like material, allowing for a cooler, washable, and more available cover for the cradle. Yarn is now used on the shade for the patterns and cloth around the edging, adding more color. With the influx of metal and glass beads, Shoshones bead around the top of the basket, on the sides, and the shade edging, making a more colorful carrier.