Mother's Baskets: The Cradleboards of California's Klamath River Tribes

Baby Cradle, 19th century
Yurok, Karok or Hupa people; Northern California
Hazelnut shoots and leather; 12 x 24 in.
Gift of Mrs. George Tsuda
Moms carry us, it’s just what they do. Whether it’s a shoulder to lean on after a stressful week or watching our own kids to let us have a night out, we should be thankful for loving mothers year-round; Mother’s Day just happens to be the one day a year we set aside to return the love with cards, gifts, and mother-oriented outings. This year the Bowers Museum Collections Blog gives back by looking not just at how moms’ emotional support can get us through the day but at how mothers physically carried their children, with an exploration of a cradleboard in the Bowers Museum’s collections made by the Yurok, Hupa, or Karok tribes.
Detail of  39635.
Since ethnographical studies of the Yurok, Hupa, and Karok of the lower Klamath River and tributaries were first undertaken, maker identification between these groups has always been a problem. Despite the tribes’ languages originating from vastly different roots and each having rich histories, their proximity and adaptation to life along the Klamath River in addition to the ease of trade across their relatively one-dimensional distributions led to numerous similarities among all three groups. Home construction, a complicated class system based on dentalia shells and other currencies, and basketry are approached almost identically by all three. Throughout the late 19th and 20thCenturies baskets and other woven items like the Bowers Museum’s cradle were often designated as being Hupa by Native American art dealers because weavers from all three groups migrated to the Hoopa Valley to be closer to markets. Without specific notes on the weaver identifying which of the three tribes made our cradle becomes virtually impossible.
A Native Son, 1885
A.W. Ericson; Arcata, California
Photograph; 5 3/8 x 3 3/8 in.
Gift of Mr. James S. Blake
Fortunately, because of the similar practices between the three groups a lot is known about the usage of the cradles. At birth babies were wrapped in blankets and tied into the slipper-shaped cradleboards with leather straps. When mothers were out collecting food or basketry materials, more straps secured these cradles to their backs for hands-free carriage. When at home the cradleboards were hung from trees to give infants a vantage of everything mom did. A shallow conical basket hat often served as a sunshade and helped secure the swaddling over an infant’s head. Children remained in cradleboards until the age of two, slightly after most were old enough to walk. They were positioned to sit with their legs hanging over the lip like a seat, resting in many cases on a bed of moss which would have served as an easily replaceable diaper. After children outgrew their cradles and their interest in an immobile life waned, they lived with their mothers in single-family houses until their adolescence, establishing lasting bonds with their moms for the rest of their lives.
In terms of classification, cradles such as this are advanced forms of basketry. Cradleboards, especially those made by the Hupa are often made of willow or hazelnut warps, structural frameworks of thin but sturdy second-year shoots collected in recently burned over areas, and secured with a weaving method called twining for which tree roots were exclusively used. This basket’s warp was made with the shoots of the hazelnut tree, considered by expert Hupa weavers to be the finest material for basketry. Hazelnut shoots became scarce in the early 20th Century when government regulations were put in place to stop controlled burning out of a later disproven fear of creating forest fires, meaning that this cradleboard almost certainly dates from an earlier period. Some cradles made by the Lower Klamath River tribes were also decorated with dark maidenhair fern stems and other overlay materials, but the Bowers Cradle has no such finishing features.
A Native Daughter, 1886
A.W. Ericson; Arcata, California
Photograph; 5 3/8 x 3 1/2 in.
Gift of Mr. James S. Blake
The cradle itself only provides physical evidence of the connection between moms and their children. To further hint at the depth of this connection the Bowers has several postcards featuring cradleboards like the featured Yurok, Hupa, or Karok one. In one of Ericson Photo’s cards, A Native Daughter, one can just barely make out the mother’s pride bursting through the Victorian era’s mandatory stoicism. Reasons like this make it easy to say, “love you, mom” and “Happy Mother’s Day!”
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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