In Navajo culture, babies are kept in Awee' Tsaal (Navajo for cradleboard) to keep them safe and secure. These cradleboards are usually made of cedar wood. Babies are first swaddled in a blanket then laid on the board, the leather strips are laced to secure the newborn. Families will make or purchase these wooden cradleboards when a new child is expected and they are blessed with corn pollen, songs and prayers before the baby is born and placed in it. Cradleboards carry many sacred Navajo teachings that are usually shared with the parents during the pregnancy and then passed down through generations.
In 2019, Jennifer Touchine, originally from Gallup, NM, made plans to start a non-profit to work with expectant Navajo parents to teach parenting skills and provide support throughout pregnancy. The Bringing Baby Home program would be offered to couples who would be having a baby that was at least a quarter Navajo. When the couple’s baby arrived, she would gift them with a Navajo cradleboard and continue to provide parenting services to them. Her plans were to start with Navajo cradleboards and later expand to do the same for other tribes.
She found a cradleboard maker from Lukachukai, Arizona in 2019 and ordered 10 to start her organization. When her order was complete, Jennifer had plans to start her organization but, life had other plans for her as she juggled the responsibilities of working full-time and being a mother to her daughter Nizhoni. She didn’t have the time that was needed for the program so in January she decided that if she didn’t start the program by March, she would donate the cradleboards to Navajo mothers.
In March, Jennifer decided it was time to give the cradleboards away. She wanted to give the cradleboards to Navajo mothers in hopes that they would keep them as a keepsake and that it would be a connection to learn and teach others about the traditional teachings about the cradleboards. It would be a way to encourage mothers to learn about their culture.
When she was giving away the cradleboards, she enjoyed connecting with the mothers and feeling like she was helping to continue cultural teachings. She had many mothers reach out and she would contact them about two weeks before their due dates to give them the boards. She says that it was a great feeling when she received photos from the mother’s with their babies in the cradleboards.
On November 11, 2020, I met with Jennifer to take some photos of her and the last cradleboard. Later that afternoon, she was referred to someone who was looking for one. She says she became unexpectedly emotional when she gave away that cradleboard and felt a sense of closure. She questioned if she should look for donations to continue doing this for new parents.
For now, Jennifer is taking time to focus on being a mother, her mental health, and her job. She will re-visit this program again later and may move forward with starting the organization. She has so many ideas she wants to implement into this program and hopefully, down the road, she will be able to make it happen.
Jennifer, thank you so much for making the investment for these babies. They will start their lives being swaddled in your kindness, generosity and blessed with your thoughts of love and appreciation of your culture. I hope that one day, everything will align and your program will become a reality so that many more families will be blessed with these amazing gifts. Ahe’hee!