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Art & Architecture Tikinagan revival: Why Anishinaabe artists are returning to traditional handcrafted wooden baby carriers

For thousands of years, Anishinaabe children started their lives wrapped tightly in a tikinagan, a hand-crafted wooden baby carrier, a way of life nearly lost to colonial violence and forced assimilation.

The Globe and Mail

In the community centre in Wauzhushk Onigum First Nation, just outside of Kenora, Ont., the smell of fresh-cut wood permeates the air, even with the front door wide open. Shannon and Ryan Gustafson are readying to teach a workshop on how to make a tikinagan, a traditional baby carrier made of cedar or black ash.

The married Anishinaabe artists, from Whitesand First Nation, both left full-time careers six years ago to pursue their passion for historical woodland art. Ms. Gustafson kickstarts the workshop with an intimate introduction of why they are doing the work they are doing: as part of their healing journey after losing their son four years ago in a car accident. “We’ve travelled all over and we’ve had the opportunity to listen to so many different tikinagan teachings, even the way they are made. It’s really nice to hear people talk about their stories and their memories of tikinagans. Our son was born and went straight in there. We were very young parents, and when you think of young parents today, would they do that?” she wonders.

For thousands of years, Anishinaabe children started their lives wrapped tightly in a handcrafted wooden baby carrier, but this tradition was nearly lost to colonial violence and forced assimilation. Some of the most beautiful carriers – ornamented with beading, quills and shellwork – are on display in national museums across North America.

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When you visit a museum, you expect to see rare objects of art and culture, artifacts of a time gone by. The tikinagan is such a piece – hand-stitched with florals, clan animals and spirit helpers, it reveals the care and craftsmanship that went into creating it. But it’s also an item whose use many are working to revive.

Across Turtle Island, including Anishinaabe territory all along the shores of Lake Superior, there is a strong cultural resurgence of traditional knowledge, from elders fighting to save their language, to youth advocating for water protection. The Gustafsons are playing their part in this resurgence movement by teaching Anishinaabe parents how to make the traditional baby carrier.

After spending a couple of years learning the intricacies of the craft, the Gustafsons set out on the road beginning this January, travelling to First Nations across northern and southern Ontario, teaching community members what they know. They have helped make more than 400 cradleboards, driving at times as far as 900 kilometres from home, covering an area the size of France.

Nearly a dozen participants signed up for the workshop in Wauzhushk Onigum. Some joined for healing. One young couple is preparing for their baby due in December. A couple of grandmothers came with their granddaughters. One woman remembers her father making cradleboards when she was a young child, but needed help remembering all the steps.

The tikinagan is made of five pieces of wood sewn together with sinew and some modern methods of securing: wood glue, clamps and screws. It is sturdy to support the baby. A moss bag – which holds the baby and was traditionally stuffed with moss to serve as a diaper – is sewn to the board. Before each workshop begins, Mr. Gustafson cuts every piece, steams the cradle part of the carrier and the bush bar, and molds the damp wood using templates he has built. He’s perfected his technique and saved time by using his sauna to dry out the wood, modernizing the technique of how to make them.

The Gustafsons put all three of their children in the tikinagan as soon as they were born, starting with their late son, Jesse. “He’d take naps in there, he’d sleep in there, he’d watch me in there. His little legs went bowlegged like he just stepped off a horse, but they straightened out,” says Ms. Gustafson, who later learned to roll up a receiving blanket and place it in such a way as to keep babies’ legs and hips straight while being wrapped up in the carrier.

The tikinagans “keep them grounded, they keep them connected to the earth. All those things the cradleboard are made of comes from the earth and it creates that connection,” Ms. Gustafson says.

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The Gustafsons were entrusted by the National Inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls to create a carrier, with culturally significant materials from other peoples, such as seal fur and horse hair, to hold the final report. The report contains the testimony of loss and trauma from surviving family members, recorded over the three years of the inquiry. The final report determined a finding of genocide, which was accepted by the federal government and highly contested by Canadian pundits across national media.

“The past 140 years, we’ve been systematically removed from our land by the government and we’ve been forced into reservations or into towns and cities,” says Isaac Murdoch, an Anishinaabe artist who, alongside renowned Métis painter Christi Belcourt, runs the Nimkii Aazhibikong camp, where they are revitalizing Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe language) and traditional knowledge, including teachings on the tikinagan.

“People are connecting all the dots and they’re starting to reclaim who they are so they can protect the environment, save their language and prepare the young people for the future.”

Each part of the tikinagan is symbolic and has a specific function, from protection and warmth, practical to spiritual, Murdoch explains. “The tikinagan is about education. The first teacher is the water in the womb. You can tell those that are raised in a tikinagan – their posture is different, their patience is different,” he says.

Alex Kahsenni:io Nahwegahbow is the first curator of Historical Indigenous Art at the National Art Gallery of Canada. When early collectors and anthropologists were out in the field collecting items from native people for museums and galleries, she explains, they were drawn to items that showed Anishinaabe authenticity, beauty, and ingenuity. Tikinagans were among the items most sought after. A collection of them is on permanent display in the Daphne Cockwell Gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Nahwegahbow is writing her PhD thesis on the tikinagan. During her research, she was surprised to see Anishinaabe moms still using the traditional carrier and wondered what kept bringing them back to the tikinagan when modern ways of carrying a baby are available. “They’re beautiful objects, but they also embody the way we thought about family and children,” she explains. Nahwegahbow made the connections between the tikinagan and Anishinaabe values, the strong connection between babies and the spirit world. They are intimately connected with the Creator, so it’s important that parents wrap their babies up tightly to let them know they are loved and they belong here.

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Nahwegahbow is excited and hopeful for the future and the resurgence of culture. In her research, she interviewed parents and read many articles and parenting blogs about young Indigenous mothers across Canada now raising their children in tikinagans. “We were told our parenting was bad and wrong and that message caused an awful lot of damage to families and communities. Indigenous moms are choosing to reclaim those things, knowing we had it right all along – we knew how to parent our children,” Nahwegahbow says.

Nahwegahbow says she chuckles when she reads about new trends in Western parenting, such as swaddling a baby or baby-wearing, when she knows Indigenous mothers have been doing this since the beginning. She also understands that people are drawn to tikinagans for their beauty. For her, as a museum curator, the challenge will come in how to display artifacts properly so it tells the story that babies were held in the highest esteem, and loved and cared for by all, community and family.

How to make a tikinagan

Step 1:

Measure, cut and mold all the wooden pieces to make the cradleboard and bushbar. The fabric and ribbon are also precut.

Step 2

After the cradleboard is assembled and each piece sanded smooth, it then requires staining and time to cure. While the stain is setting, precut fabric and ribbon are selected to make the moss bag. (Ribbon choices include plenty of lace, scallop and fringe, in a rainbow of colour and size.) Next, participants make the moss bag, traditionally filled with mashkiigwakamig, a moss that would not only keep the baby clean and dry, but would also act as an insect repellent.

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Step 3

The final step is sewing the moss bag to the tikinagan. It can be tricky to sew through the material and the wooden cradle, especially when you have to do it a few times to ensure everything is tightly secured. Once it’s all sewn together, the tikinagan is complete.

Tikinagan from MMIWG

When the Gustafsons – Ryan, Shannon and their daughter Justine – were approached by the National Inquiry for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls to create a tikinagan to hold the final report of the findings from their three years of hearing testimony, it was important to the Gustafsons that the Anishinaabe carrier also have cultural significance for other Indigenous peoples. The Gustafsons spent 150 hours of intensive labour to make the dedicated tikinagan, which included materials such as horsehair to represent the Plains Cree, seal fur for the Inuit and the Métis sash.

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