Haudenosaunee (Iroquois)

Cradleboard decorated with a tree of life, beaver, deer and birds

  • About 1860
  • Wood and rawhide
  • 30 1/2 × 13 in.

Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College: Gift of Capt. Herbert L. Shuttleworth II, Class of 1935; 43.25.8592

visibilityLook & Discuss

Among the Haudenosaunee, nations are divided into clans, groups of families linked to a common female ancestor. In a matrilineal society, clan identity passes from mother to child. Clan members provide shelter, care, and welcome to visiting clan members from other nations. Because people of the same clan are considered family, marriages within the same clan are forbidden. Clans are represented by birds and animals and are divided into three elements: water, land, and air. The bear, wolf, and deer represent the land element; the turtle, eel, and beaver represent the water element; and the snipe, hawk, and heron represent the air element. The clan system still survives among those who follow the traditions.

This cradleboard is decorated with imagery that may reflect the clan system. A cradleboard is a Native American baby carrier. Babies feel secure when held tightly, and some type of swaddling occurs in most cultures around the world. In a cradleboard, the baby is swaddled tightly in a soft fur or blanket and strapped to the flat board. The mother can then carry the board in her arms, wear it on her back, prop it up on the ground like a baby chair, or secure it to a sled or travois for long journeys. The wooden hoop protects the baby’s head in case the cradleboard topples or falls. Cradleboards are often beautifully decorated to show the love and joy felt at the arrival of a new baby. In some communities, cradleboards are still made or handed down as baby gifts. 

explore the object

Cradleboard overdrawing.jpg

A flowering tree of life fills the back of the cradleboard. The Haudenosaunee believe that such a tree full of flowers, fruits, and bright lights exists in the Sky World. Look very carefully to see a pair of birds. 

At the base of the tree is a pair of beavers. 

At the top of the cradleboard is a pair of deer. 

These animals may be the clan symbols of the child’s parents, representing the water element and the land element.

How might this cradleboard communicate good wishes for the new baby and proclaim his or her place within the community?

learn more


Questions for further consideration:

How do materials and styles vary from people to people?

How is each cradleboard designed to keep the baby safe? 

How does each express the love of the community for the child? 


Northeast Woodlands: Gender Roles & Family