Prior to the days of playpens, car seats and strollers, Indian babies were carried around in a cradleboard, commonly known as a baby papoose today. A baby papoose could be strapped to the back of a mother so she could walk around, work and have her arms free, much like a backpack. A baby papoose could also be propped up anywhere – with the baby safely inside.

A baby papoose, or cradleboard, was often decorated with very elaborate beadwork. Many times the decoration and symbols that went on a baby papoose told of the hopes and dreams that the parent’s had for the baby. Many times young girls were given miniature baby papooses or cradleboards to decorate and play with. This would teach the girl about the art of motherhood.

It is interesting to note that baby papooses made a dramatic impact on early Americans. So much so that something similar was adopted for the military and became known as infantry packs.

Keys to a properly made baby papoose include:

  • The center of gravity of the baby papoose is brought vertically as close to a person’s center of gravity.
  • The load is carried with the skeleton; thereby it maintains equilibrium and economizes muscular efforts.
  • A minimum of pressure is placed on the soft areas of the body, nerves and blood vessels.
  • The baby papoose does not impair the heart and lungs and allows the chest to expand fully.
  • Arms and legs are free.

It is thought that Sacagawea (the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau who was hired by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter) carried her young son, Jean Baptiste in a cradleboard. While no one can prove that Sacagawea toted Jean Baptiste in a baby papoose, it is the general thought that she was no different than other Indian mothers.

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