Very Important Babies – Tribal baby transport from Borneo & North America.

This post celebrates the birth of our granddaughter Pheobe on October 22nd, 2012.

  We smudge your cradle with with virtual sage and wish you a long and happy life.


Tribal babies are much loved, spoiled, protected and encouraged to become part of the community – learning their future roles in society from the time they can toddle. I have seen many two- and three-year olds in Vanuatu dancing with their fathers or singing clapping songs with their mothers with great panache and obvious enjoyment.

An African mother carries her child in a securely tied back cloth.

Of course, it is best for babies to stay close to their mothers, so they can be watched, touched, calmed fed and cleaned whenever they need to be. Through almost all of Africa and much of Asia, the traditional way of doing this was to secure the baby on its mother’s back with a soft hide or cloth, or to carry it on the mother’s hip, supported by a fabric sling that went over the opposite shoulder. In Borneo and Northern America, however, baby carriers were raised to the status of works of art and family heirlooms.

The art of beadwork using small glass seed beads is traditionally restricted to only three Dayak tribes, the Kayan, Kenyah and Kajang of

The Dayak baby who occupied this carrier was protected by a large yellow spirit face and two white aso or dragons.

central Kalimantan, Borneo, of which the Kayan bead workers are acknowledged to be the best. Beadwork is produced only by women, replacing the hand weaving found among other Dayak tribes as the primary women’s art.

Dayak baby carriers, called ba, resemble small chairs without legs, supported on the mother’ shoulders from straps, like a backpack. The seat is made of a semi-circular plank to which the woven basketry back is attached.

This wood and rattan basket is usually lined and covered with hand loomed cloth and finished  with a  beaded panel at the back depicting powerful protective symbols and further  embellished with tassels, bells, teeth, claws,  or cowry shells and strings of large beads.

The shape appears to have been derived from a solid wooden version called a benning,carved form ironwood and extremely heavy, which was once  made

A benning style baby carrier embellished with protective faces and valuable conus disks.

made by the same tribes. The benning  was often ornately carved with protective spirit faces and decorated with valuable ground conus shell disks. These are still occasionally made, though mostly for sale.

Since Dayak art is strictly gender related the benning  would have been carved by men, who would also provide the seats and the decorative carved wooden uprights which are sometimes used in the woven and beaded version. The basketwork, fabric weaving and beading was women’s work. All the fabric would once have been tie dyed and hand loomed on a backstrap loom, though trade store textiles are often  substituted nowadays.


The Dayak beaded baby carrier or ba was created for two reasons – to display the prestige and wealth of e family, and to protect the baby when it left the safety of the communal longhouse and compound. They were used only when mother and baby were away from home.

The fact that the spirit figure is wearing shorts dates this carrier to circa 1960. The tigers and elaborate tassels are said to denote a family of status.

The source of the protection offered by the baby carrier was primarily the beaded panel called the aban, which faced outwards from the rear of the ba. The Dayak are animists and their world is populated by powerful spirits, many of which are dangerous to humans. The designs of most women’s art are defensive, designed to erect barriers between their families and the malignant spirits and this is a particularly important role of baby carriers, which guard the baby from the rear.

Popular motifs for the aban include ancestor figures, protective dragons called aso and spirit or ghost faces. I have also been told that  aban featuring tigers, as in this example, were reserved for the children of very high status  parents.

The additional  decoration of the aban seems to  have been somewhat gender related – cowry shells are the universal female symbol, while animal teeth and claws  were possibly reserved for male babies

A Kenyan or Kayan baby carrier covered in distinctive alternating fabric strips and protected by two opposed aso dragons.

 I have often read claims that the teeth on Aban are “tiger teeth”, which is nonsense since there never were any tigers in Borneo, and I fear that before  the 1960s, most of the claws and teeth were harvested from the  small sun bear, which is now a protected under CITES regulations in Kalimantan (Indonesian  Borneo), its future under threat  from  huge scale  illegal logging and forest clearance which is wiping out its natural environment.

Other decorations added to the aban include brass bells, large strings of Chinese and Indian trade beads, and  large and elaborate beaded tassels which can also be found decorating the scabbards of Dayak swords.

A Cherokee mother holds her child which is snuggly cacooned in its cradleboard.

Native American and Canadian First Nation cradleboards were quite different in concept and design from Dayak baby barriers, but the two  objects shared important qualities. Both were portable, both were status symbols, and both were often decorated with   beadwork motifs which were not arbitrary or decorative, but played a role in protecting the baby from harm.

The Native American cradleboard is a rigid base or frame to which a baby could be securely fastened, sometimes within a bag that was part of the cradle, sometimes wrapped in its bunting of hide or cloth and tied to the frame.  The cradle could then be carried in the mother’s arms or  on   the mother’s back, hanging from her forehead strap with the baby facing outward, or  leaned upright  against any vertical support while the mother was working, or tied to a saddle or a horse drawn travios frame when the family was on the move.

Like many Plains cradleboards, this Cheyenne example is supported on either side by a narrow plank.

 There were two types of cradle, both often called cradleboards to distinguish them from  non-native cradles. One type was actually built on a wooden board or rigid basketry base, while the other was made of several layers of hide and cloth or basketry without the frame.

Many cradleboards incorporated a protective  frame like a car anti- roll bar to protect the baby’s head and face if the cradle fell and had a projecting hood to protect against rain, sun and wind. Some also had a footboard that could support the baby’s legs. A common feature of many Plains cradleboards such of those of the Cheyenne and the Comanche was the long wooden uprights on either side,  which made it easier to secure to a travois and held it firmly upright.

Unlike the Dayak version, which was only used outside the home, the Native American cradleboard was in daily use until the baby was weaned and could walk. In fact, the baby spent most of its first two years or more in the cradle. (The baby did not need to wear clothes in the cradle, and a layer of soft moss was used as a diaper).

There is much traditional lore about cradleboards and their contribution the child’s healthy development. The Navaho believed that being strapped into the cradleboard  helped the

A Hopi beaded cradleboard.

baby to grow up straight and tall. Other tribes  believed that the cradleboard calmed fretting babies, by swaddling them tightly and making them feel secure, while the Plains tribes  believed that the fact that  it could be stood or hung at a height that  placed the baby at eye level with adults played  an important role in  socializing the child.

There were also special religious ceremonies relating to cradleboards. Before an Arapaho baby was placed into its cradleboard for the first time, the interior was smudged with smoking  sage to drive away bad spirits while the cradle’s maker prayed for a long and happy life for the child. And when a Navaho child outgrew the cradle, it was washed and then readied for the next child by sprinkling it with sacred red pollen while praying over it to ensure that the previous baby’s nightmares were removed and did not frighten  the next occupant.

Because of the many exquisitely beaded examples in museums and major private  collections, we tend to think of cradleboards as being predominantly women’s work. As with the Dayak of Borneo, however, not all American cradleboards were made by women.

Navaho cradleboards were distinguished by the wide curved hoop protecting the baby;s head.

The men of the Mohawk people of Canada  carved or painted their  children’s  cradleboards with the most beautiful motifs , even though these might not be visible when the  baby was in place. The Navaho cradle board was also made entirely by the child’s father. It consisted of a wooden back board made of two boards laced together with a cut out vee  at the top, with a hoop of oak cut thin enough to be curved that was attached as a “roll bar” to protect the baby’s head. The baby was then swaddled and the swaddling tied onto the frame by means of buckskin strips. (The Navaho left the strips unadorned, but among the Crow people, it was these strips  that were beaded rather than the cover itself).

The beaded cradleboards  represented an enormous amount of work and each one is  a unique one off work which reflects the skills of the makers, who beaded them in colours and designs which functioned as protective talismans and symbols of tribal identity. 

The straps of Crow cradles are beaded, not the covers.

Produced by the most accomplished older bead workers who had the recognised expertise to bead directly onto hide. they  were certainly not made for every baby and tended to be presented as gifts by senior relatives. They thus  become  family heirlooms used for generations, so if a family did not own a cradleboard, they might borrow one from friends or relatives.

In fact, contemporary Native American mothers  still value the cradleboard as a secure child carrying technique  and affirmation of cultural identity and modern versions are produced to this day,

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