Jess Ahūgišįnįwįga Lopez-Walker welcomed a caseworker into her Sioux City, Iowa, home in 2017 as she attempted to adopt her second child, a baby girl she had taken in as a foster parent.
The enrolled member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska wanted the infant close to her body, to nurture and carry her the same way her people had for generations — in a cradle board strapped to her back. At the time, Lopez-Walker had spent almost 20 years carefully crafting the baby carriers used in countless Indigenous cultures, with well-sanded wood, soft cloth, padding, and beaded decorative flourishes.
But her county caseworker in Iowa explained the carrier did not meet state standards for foster and adoptive parents.
“That didn’t sit right with me because these have been our way of life for hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Lopez-Walker, 46. “The generational trauma that goes with that — I was really hurt when they said, ‘No, you can’t use that.’”
The pushback didn’t stop her however. She asked for a meeting with state officials.
“My heart went to frustration, and then it was determination,” she said.
More than six years later, Lopez-Walker has not given up.
From her South Sioux City, Nebraska, storefront called Shining Wing Designs, she has built and sold hundreds of baby boards to Indigenous families. She has also continued her advocacy efforts to be able to supply the baby boards to other foster parents.
Baby carriers differ across tribes and cultures, but there are key differences between baby boards and cradle boards. Cradle boards have a top board and a foot board that secures the baby’s legs. Within a baby board, tightly wrapped blankets secure the infant.
Native American babies are among the most likely to be removed from their families and placed in foster care, an intergenerational legacy brought on by colonialism and genocidal acts by the U.S. government.
Once in the system, Lopez-Walker believes it is the infants’ “cultural birthright” to be cared for with as many traditional practices as possible, whether placed in a Native home or not. She continues to push Iowa Department of Human Services officials to reconsider their rules limiting baby gear to conventional sleeping and resting arrangements, like beds and cribs, so that more Native infants can be soothed at home by baby boards.
In the meantime, she leads presentations for social workers and hosts public gatherings that educate foster parents about the safe use of the Indigenous infant carriers and raise awareness about their cultural significance. At an event in January, those who gathered watched “Daughter of a Lost Bird,” a documentary film about a woman adopted off her Lummi reservation who reconnects with her tribe and birth family.
Ansley Griffin, 54, joins Lopez-Walker at these educational events, and at times he brings his grandbaby to demonstrate the use of baby boards.
Griffin, an Omaha Tribe of Nebraska elder, is a former tribal liaison for the Sioux City, Iowa, Department of Human Services, a role that involved working to bridge the gaps in states’ understanding of tribal needs and beliefs. He also has experienced foster care himself, after being placed at age 11 with a white Mormon couple away from his Omaha family.
After Griffin aged out of foster care, he found his grandmother and she became part of his own children’s lives, cradling them in baby boards. Snug and secure, she would sing to the babies, cooing Umohon lullabies and reminding Griffin of the vital importance of traditional languages when raising Indigenous children.
“She was singing ‘Little girl, I’m here, little girl, I’m here.’” Griffin recalled. “The child goes to bed right then, with that love and care — that’s how important our baby boards are to our babies out there, even in foster care.”
‘The safest sleeping alternative’
Lopez-Walker constructs her baby carriers with sturdy plywood, which is light and durable. She cuts the boards to size and sands them, then sews on colorful fabric and padding. Next, she constructs small pillows and swaddle blankets, attaching carrying straps on the back. Appliqué designs based on a parent’s request provide the finishing touches, often denoting the child’s tribal clan or gender. Each baby carrier takes about four hours to complete and range in cost from $50 to $270 for sets sold with a matching diaper bag and star quilt.
Baby boards can be “empowering for community members to remember that Native Americans have always had mechanisms for keeping babies safe.”—the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
In her storefront and through online sales, Lopez-Walker has made and sold hundreds of baby boards to Indigenous families. She also makes and sells regalia, day dresses, ribbon skirts and shirts, beaded jewelry and moccasins. The baby boards are now considered art pieces, and will soon be on display at the Angel De Cora Museum and Research Center, which is operated by the Winnebago tribe.
Native Americans are among many people across the globe with age-old versions of baby carriers that are also used throughout Asia and Africa. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reports that Native American baby boards “help with the child’s skeletal development, strengthen neck muscles, and provide an opportunity for the infant to be visually and emotionally stimulated by his or her environment and family.”
The federal agency calls the baby carriers “one of the safest alternative sleep surfaces,” and notes the benefits beyond a good nap. Baby boards also can be “empowering for community members to remember that Native Americans have always had mechanisms for keeping babies safe,” according to the federal agency.
Lopez-Walker discovered baby boards while on her tribe’s reservation for the first time at age 15. Her mother had been separated from her Winnebago people and raised in foster care, so she had to take it upon herself to reconnect with her past.
As she approached parenthood, that connection remained strong, and she began taking in foster children after her biological son was born 12 years ago. Lopez-Walker and her husband are now raising their son along with four Indigenous children they are fostering with the goal of adoption. The oldest girls, ages 6 and 7, are Winnebago who were placed in her home through the state. The 18-month-old twin girls are Omaha, and were placed through their tribe.
Lopez-Walker’s push for baby boards began when the older children were young, but the new babies are now benefiting. About a month after her initial meeting with state officials, she got word back: it was acceptable for her to use baby boards in her home again. She had been granted an exemption to the safety standards that kept foster parents from using culturally-appropriate baby carriers or sleeping arrangements.
She found the boards were particularly soothing for the twin infants, who were born prematurely. With their heads and bodies upright, the baby carriers seemed to help with everything from digestion problems to shivers from withdrawal in her other children, Lopez-Walker said.
Then her artistic ability kicked in. She began making baby boards in her home because relatives, elders and families around town were using them. Baby boards were the first Indigenous item she taught herself to craft, and the first step she took toward raising her children in their Native culture.
She hopes the state will loosen its regulations, so she supplies the baby boards she makes in her Sioux City, Nebraska, shop for use in other foster homes. Although she was granted an exemption to use the baby carriers in her home, she has yet to see the exemption applied more broadly.
The Imprint tried repeatedly to get clarification from state officials on this issue, but did not receive a response.
But Lopez-Walker is making some progress. This year she said she will make quarterly presentations on baby boards for Lutheran Services in Iowa — the agency that oversees the licensing of foster homes.
Griffin, the Omaha Tribe elder, called this work a blessing.
“It’s really been helpful to our people to push that renaissance of culture,” he said. “It’s been a blessing for people to start to learn cultural values and beliefs like baby boards, because everything that we bring back is going to be helpful to our families, and ultimately, our children.”