Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Motherhood in Traditional Navajo Culture

by Kiersti Giron

Navajo women spinning wool into yarn for rugs, 1933 - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

November is Native American Heritage Month, so in today’s post I’d like to continue my “motherhood through history” series by honoring Native American mothers. Women in general and mothers in particular have traditionally been highly regarded in Native American culture, often more so than their white counterparts at the time. While there are many similarities in motherhood between Native people groups, there are also differences, so I’ve decided to specifically focus on the Navajo this time, as the First Nations group I am most familiar with through researching my novels.

Matriarchal Society

The Navajo 
people are the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. living mostly in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. While Native cultures typically honor women, most have historically still been patriarchal. Not so the Navajo—they are a matriarchal, matrilineal society literally built around women and their families. While men still held much decision-making power for the clan, to this day familial descent is traced through the mother’s clan, not the father’s. Women traditionally owned the Hogan, the traditional six-sided log home of the Navajo, and children belonged to her and would stay with her should she and her husband separate. If she wanted to divorce her husband, she signaled this by putting his belongings outside the Hogan. When a couple married, the young man came to live near his wife’s extended family, which included relatives of her mother, though he might still go and help his mother’s and sister’s families when he could. The wife controlled the majority of the family property, owned the sheep they raised and their products, such as wool and the traditional Navajo rugs made from it. 

Studio portrait of Navajo mother and child, 1880 - 1910.,
Public Domain

Pregnancy and Birth 

Traditionally, it was taboo for an expectant mother to prepare much for her baby before he or she was born. To do so was thought to invite ill luck upon the child. Many other taboos governed much of a Navajo 
woman’s pregnancy—as they do much of traditional Navajo life. For example, a pregnant mother was to avoid tying knots, as this might prove a hindrance to the child being born. This came from the story of Changing Woman, whose birth was hindered by a door being bound, and she is seen as the ancestress of all Navajo mothers. Other taboos include avoiding any contact with death or a place of death during pregnancy for fear of causing harm to the baby, or wearing masks lest the baby’s face be deformed.

Until the middle of the 20th century, Navajo babies were born at home. The birth was traditionally attended by family members, often including the father, a midwife, and sometimes a medicine man, especially if difficulty arose during the birth. Women gave birth in an upright position such as kneeling or squatting, which we know does indeed facilitate easier childbirth compared to the Western tradition of lying flat in bed, and typically held onto a sash or rope tied to the ceiling of the hogan.

As in all cultures, the birth of a baby brought great joy. This joy continued to be celebrated when a baby had his or her first laugh, with a "laughing party" where the child gave gifts to all attendees, encouraging a spirit of joyful generosity throughout the baby's life.

Cradleboards and Cliff Rose Diapers
Navajo mother and child, 1933 - 1942, Arizona. By Ansel Adams
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain
As in many Native American cultures, Navajo women traditionally bound their babies onto cradleboards, and the traditional craft of making these boards still exists today. The back of the cradleboard is made of a local wood like cottonwood or pine, and a thin piece of oak curved over the top of the board, handily protecting the baby’s head if it should fall. The baby was wrapped in a warm cloth with his or her arms at the side, then bound to the cradleboard with strips of buckskin. A Navajo mother could then easily take her baby with her wherever she went, propping the cradle against the hogan or a tree when working outside. Typically babies were carried in the arms and then propped up to watch the mother working more than the stereotypical image of hanging on their mothers’ backs. Many mothers would even nurse their babies without taking them out of the cradleboard. 

As babies grew a bit older, their arms might be left free if they were awake, and even bits of beads attached to the top of the cradleboard for them to bat at. (Having a six-month-old myself, I can definitely see the draw!) As babies entered the second half of their first year, at some point they would “graduate” out of the cradleboard, a decision often partly dependent on the baby’s preference.
Lamb and Navajo baby in cradleboard - U.S. National Archives
and Records Administration, Public Domain

Then as now, babies need provision in the diaper area, and Navajo 
mothers had a creative solution. The soft bark of the cliff rose plant was shredded up in large quantities and tucked between the baby’s legs in the cradleboard, then simply changed as needed. Sometimes juniper was used instead.

So as with all the other cultures and periods of history we’ve looked at in this motherhood series, while many aspects of mothering do vary across time and place, many others—from diapering needs to our love for our children—remain the same. What struck or surprised you from learning about Navajo mothers? Please comment and share! 

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazine and won the 2013 and 2018 Genesis Awards – Historical for her novels Beneath a Turquoise Sky and Fire in My Heart. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her husband, Anthony, their two kitties, and their new baby boy.


  1. I wonder how many hours a day a baby is put into the cradleboard. I wouldn't think that would be great for muscle development, but we use a lot of contraptions for babies in our world, don't we? Thanks for the great post!

    1. Hi Connie! In my understanding it varied by mother and baby preference--often 16-18 hours per 24-hour day when the baby was young, but then, new babies usually sleep about that much per day anyway! And apparently it worked well for generations of Navajo babies. :) So true how we always have one sort of baby contraption or another! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting--always good to see you here. :)

  2. Hi Kiersti. Thanks for the very interesting post. I too, wonder how the baby didn't protest such confinement. When my own children were babies, they loved moving their arms and legs.

    1. I guess it was similar to how many people even today will swaddle babies, because especially when they are small, it is comforting and reminds them of being confined in the womb. My own little guy is super wiggly, yet he loves it when we tuck him in snug to his car seat with a blanket confining his arms and legs (when it's cold). But every baby is different! Thanks so much for reading and sharing. :)