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Browse: Cáuigú Cradleboards, Legacies of Love and Resilience

"[Paukeigope] loved those children, and prayed for them [to thrive] in a world she would never see.”[1]

                                                   —Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings, artist and descendant of Paukeigope  

Native North American mothers have used cradleboards for many generations, and Cáuigú (Kiowa)* cradleboard making is an intimate, personal gesture of family pride and love. This red wool cradleboard—while attributed primarily to Paukeigope (1881–1949)—was likely hand-crafted collaboratively, according to Cáuigú tradition, with matriarchs from Paukeigope’s immediate kinship network. The process often spanned the full nine-month gestation period, and included harvesting and carving timber for the lattice, which was often bodark (also known as Osage orange). The cradleboard was then decorated to reflect the child’s genealogies. The beadwork designs incorporate contemporary materials such as milled wool, glass cut seed beads from the Czech Republic, and pounded brass sequins, all of which reflect Paukeigope’s status and wealth within the rapidly expanding trade economy of the era. The materials also highlight the precolonial tradition of showcasing traded goods, particularly through adornment. Paukeigope’s beadwork tells a story that references botanical, medicinal, and worldview narratives. Importantly, the cradleboard was not intended as a museum piece.

Paukeigope came from an elite warrior clan of Cáuigú Society, which is directly reflected in the visual narratives and in the complexity of her beadwork. Her mother, Keintaddle (1849–1938), was a renowned beadworker. Paukeigope was born during a time of tremendous change for the Cáuigú. The Medicine Lodge Treaty—signed in 1867 by the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Nations, and the U.S. government—marked a loss of Cáuigú freedom and sparked a new era of colonialism in what is presently known as Oklahoma. 

Cradleboards as Indigenous Technologies

Western research often fails to acknowledge the intergenerational lifeways and science behind these ancestral objects. The design of a Cáuigú cradleboard targets the infant’s vestibular system, which is responsible for spatial awareness, balance, and other motor functions. The centuries-old technology is built for versatility and adaptation. A cradleboard could be utilized as a stationary infant swing or mobile carrier, among other uses. The postnatal care benefits of the cradleboard are comparable to swaddling practices used around the world. 

Over the last century, the knowledge and practice of cradleboard use has fluctuated amongst Indigenous communities which created and sustained the devices, due to historical and contemporary colonialism. Only a handful of Cáuigú makers still create cradleboards today, including Paukeigope’s descendant and namesake Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings (Cáuigú / Akimel O’odham). Cáuigú cradleboards are widely collected, prized for their intricate beadwork, and the Gilcrease has several examples, made largely between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Gilcrease Museum collection also includes a number of works by Paukeigope’s son, Stephen Mopope (1898-1974). Little is known about the history of ownership of Paukeigope’s cradleboard before it was collected by Thomas Gilcrease. 

By Jordan Poorman Cocker (Kiowa/ Tongan), Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Indigenous Painting Collection Research, 2020

* Note: Here, I refer to Kiowa as Cáuigú (Khoiye-goo), the correct identity currently used by the Kiowa Tribe. 

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[1] Jordan Poorman Cocker, interview with Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings, May 8, 2020.  

References 

Chisholm, James S. “Swaddling, Cradleboards, and the Development of Children.” Early Human Development 2, no. 3 (October 1978): 255–75.

Glancy, Diane. Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014. [ISBN-13: 9780803249677]

Horsman, Reginald. Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. [ISBN-10: 067494805X  ISBN-13: 9780674948051]

Palmer, Gus, Jr. Telling Stories the Kiowa Way. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2003.

Thomas, Nicholas. Entangled Objects: Exchange, Material Culture, and Colonialism in the Pacific. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991. ISBN-10: 0674257316  ISBN-13: 9780674257313] 

Tone-Pah-Hote, Jenny. Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019. [ISBN: 978146964366]

Whitaker, Kathleen. “Gifts of Pride and Love: The Cultural Significance of Kiowa and Comanche Lattice Cradles.” American Anthropologist 103, no. 3 (2001): 803–8.