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The History of the Tikinagan, an Indigenous Baby Carrier

A photo of a Tikinagan from a museum
Vanessa Brousseau, @ResilientInuk

World history has offered us plenty of examples of babywearing techniques through the years — all of which were meant to provide comfort, safety and bonding opportunities for infants. Among these is the tikinagan, a traditional way First Nations mothers swaddled and transported their babies.


For thousands of years, Indigenous babies took in the world around them from the warm confines and womb-like security of this handmade baby carrier. Ornamented with exquisite beadwork, shells and quills, the artistry of the tikinagan was nearly wiped out due to forced assimilation — but it’s something many mothers are still using today.


What an incredible concept 👩‍🍼 #indigenoustiktok #indigenouswomen #indigenoustradition #motherhood

♬ Music Instrument – Gerhard Siagian

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For Vanessa Brousseau, an Indigenous consultant and ethical artist who uses the social handle @ResilientInuk, tikinagans are something she grew up with in Treaty 9 — an area which covers the James Bay and Hudson Bay watersheds in northern Ontario.

Although her mother is Inuit, her father is Ojibwe, and the tradition of tikinagan is something she first witnessed as a child before using it with her own two sons when they were infants.

“My children were raised with their father’s tradition and that included tikinagan,” Brousseau said. “Tikinagans were used to carry our babies. It was used to keep our babies safe and protected, but it was also meant to make them feel as if they were still in the womb.”

Historically — as an act of love for the baby — different family members would play a pivotal role in crafting the tikinagan that would ultimately keep the infant safe. “It’s to show how much love there is for that baby,” explained Brousseau. “[They] all do a piece of it so the baby grows up knowing that all these people wanted it to have a warm, safe space.”

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Navajo papoose on cradleboard with lamb approaching, Window Rock, Arizona, ca. 1936
Photo: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

What is a Tikinagan?

A direct translation comes to: tik = tree/wood and nagaan = vessel.

Typically used during the first months of an infant’s life (although it can sometimes be for longer), tikinagans are narrow planks of wood traditionally made out of spruce, cedar or ash wood. These rectangular boards — held together using sinew — allow a baby to be carried on their mother’s back or placed in a safe place while she is otherwise occupied.

Sometimes referred to in English as cradleboards, they have broad, flat frames with a footrest at the bottom and a curved wood bracket where the baby’s head would be — allowing parents the ability to attach mosquito nets, cloth canopies (for shade) or to ultimately prevent the child from falling on their face should the cradleboard tip over.

Related: How to Transition Your Baby’s Nursery Into a Toddler’s Room

The babies are secured to the board and snugly wrapped in a moss bag for warmth and protection. This womb-like atmosphere acts as a source of comfort for the infant as they take in the world around them. The moss bags themselves are pieces of art, featuring intricate hand-stitched florals and recreations of spirit helpers.

“A lot of them are handed down,” Brousseau explained. “It’s a pride thing in wanting to keep the baby’s spirit connected through different generations.”

Many of these historic examples from previous centuries are on display in museums across North America.

The history of the tikinagan baby carrier
Vanessa Brousseau, @ResilientInuk

The Benefits of a Tikinagan

Not only is it a relatively easy way for women to transport their babies, tikinagans also make for great socializing tools. While parents are occupied with chores or entertaining guests, babies are often propped up against a tree or wall to observe their surroundings — and keep them grounded and connected to the earth.

“It gave moms a chance to do what they needed to do,” Brousseau said. “For example, we would often go on picnics when I lived in Attawapiskat and, when we were up there, we would set up a teepee and we would just have the babies in tikinagans leaning against trees and they would watch us.”


She added, “They would be so entertained by us moving around that they were quiet and it made it easier to do what we needed to do.”

It also fosters a sense of independence for infants, allowing them to take in the world from different vantage points when not by their mother’s side.

Although not as commonly used as they once were, tikinagans are still evident in smaller, rural areas away from the hustle and bustle of big city life.

As for Brousseau, she hopes to one day get the opportunity to make one by hand herself. “Maybe one day if I have grandkids,” she said. “I want to make it with intention and have other family members be a part of the process.”

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