British Columbia

Father-daughter duo pen book exploring how Haida principles can inform teaching

In Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony, educator Sara Florence Davidson shares nine principles rooted in her father’s life experiences that she says form a strong foundation for classroom learning and teaching.

He’s an artist, she’s an educator — together, they wrote Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony

Sara and Robert Davidson collaborated on a book that explores how Indigenous ways of learning can be transplanted into the classroom. (Farah Nosh)

When Haida artist Robert Davidson carved and raised the first totem pole in Haida Gwaii in 1969, the first in almost nine decades, he was bringing back more than just a traditional art form.

The potlatch ceremony that family and friends held to celebrate the pole-raising marked the beginning of a re-emergence of Haida cultural practices and protocols that had long been outlawed but not forgotten.

The potlatch, a gift-giving feast and an important cultural ceremony for the Haida people, was banned by the Canadian government from 1881 to 1951, but knowledge of the potlatch and other traditions were kept alive by elders.

'Bringing the threads'

Davidson's daughter says it was the elders who helped with his ceremony.

"What happened when he decided to do this potlatch [in 1969] was that the elders came together and they started remembering and bringing the threads of what they remembered from before … the potlatch ban," said Sara Davidson, an education professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

"That was part of the beginning of his understanding of the depth of Haida protocols and ceremonial knowledge," she told On The Coast guest host Matthew Lazin-Ryder.

Robert Davidson began to host potlatches and feasts in the community where he would pass on to others what he had learned from Haida elders.

"He was using these feasts and these potlatches as an opportunity to teach," said Sara Davidson.

Sara Davidson, who taught Indigenous students early in her career but had trouble getting through to them, became interested in understanding how her father's lessons could be used to help Indigenous students learn in a more culturally-relevant way.

"What was really exciting for me was to think about how these might apply in the classroom," said Davidson.

Potlatch as Pedagogy

In collaboration with her father, she wrote a book that explores how traditional Haida cultural practices like those used in the potlatch can form the basis of a holistic system of learning.

In Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony, Davidson shares nine principles, or sk'ad'a, which in the Haida language means "to learn."

Davidson says these principles, rooted in her father's life experiences, form a foundation for learning and teaching. These include strong relationships, authentic experiences, curiosity, observation, history and story, among others.

Davidson hopes the book can help educators incorporate Indigenous ways of teaching and learning into their own classrooms.

Potlatch as Pedagogy was published by Portage and Main Press.

Listen to the full interview here: