SOUTH KINGSTOWN – A baby girl, born at South County Hospital Monday night, was taken home on a traditional Native American cradleboard Wednesday.
The girl, Nizhoni Jean Spears, born to Endawnis and Cassius Spears, Jr., of Ashaway, was swaddled and laced into the cradleboard, or “awéé t’saal” in Navajo, a tradition stemming from her Navajo and Narragansett heritage.
Each aspect of the cedar cradleboard, the same one that was used for the baby’s mother, is symbolic.
Edawnis’ mother, Gloria Moore, of Oklahoma, explained the significance.
“This cradleboard belonged to my daughter, Endawnis,” she said. “It was made for her but just about every tribe has their own traditional cradleboard to receive their babies.”
Moore said the cradleboards are both “utilitarian and spiritual” given their functionality and symbolism.
“Since this belonged to Endawnis and was made for her by my aunts, then when she was going to have a baby, we had to take it all apart and then when we came up before Thanksgiving, we used new bindings to put the cradleboard back together,” Moore said. “You put it back together with prayers so this was made for her and now it’s put back together for her daughter, she and Cassius’ daughter.”
Moore said she and her husband, Tom, put the cradleboard back together with the baby’s father’s parents, Dawn and Cassius Spears, Sr., in a special ceremony where they said prayers for each of the board’s bindings.
The board is made of cedar, which symbolizes strength. The arch over the baby’s head represents a rainbow and symbolizes promises, according to Moore.
“We are Christians so we believe what the Bible teaches regarding the promises of God, so we have plenty of those promises for her here,” Moore said.
The two pieces of cedar stemming from above the baby’s head symbolize wisdom and the lacings and the footboard symbolize protection. A piece of wampum is also woven through one of the bindings on the right side.
“Because she is a little girl, we put a white shell on the right side,” Moore said. “If this was a little boy baby we would have put turquoise on the left side but this is to indicate that she is a little girl. But because she is also Narragansett, this is wampum so it’s not really white shell, like the Navajos would have, but it looks like white shell and it’s symbolic of that.”
The lacings, which hold the baby on the cradleboard, also represent lightning.
“The way the bindings come together to hold her inside is about protection and then this is to keep her secure, her footboard, so all of these things all have a meaning,” Moore said. “They’re a blessing for the baby and each baby that this cradleboard holds.”
The tradition of the cradleboard dates back many, many years, according to Moore.
“A long time ago before there were carriers for the babies and the mother wanted the baby to be close by if she was carting wool or if she was cooking, she put the baby in here and she’d stand the baby up so she could watch so whatever the mother was doing the baby was right with the mother the whole time,” Moore said.
The cradleboard also includes gauze or muslin, which can be placed over the baby in the summer to protect him or her from bugs or heat, and a thicker material can be used in the winter to keep the baby warm.
“[The mother] might be carting wool, spinning, weaving, cooking, grinding corn, whatever it was, the baby got to come and witness what was going on,” Moore said.
Usually, mothers would use the cradleboard for their babies up until they are a year old, but Moore said she doesn’t think her daughter will use it too much for Nizhoni, who will likely spend most of her time in a crib or other baby carriers.
Endawnis and Cassius Spears live in Ashaway and between them Nizhoni has an interesting heritage. Endawnis, who is originally from Arizona, is Navajo on he mother’s side and Ojibwa, Choctaw and Chickasaw on her father’s side. Cassius is from the Narragansett Tribe and said most of his family is from Charlestown.
The couple met when they were working as educators at the Pequot Museum.
Nizhoni Jean, whose first name means “beautiful” in Navajo, was born Jan. 21 at 5:40 p.m. at 20.5 inches long and weighing 6 pounds 4 ounces. She is the couple's first child.