Potlatch as Pedagogy, an interview and introduction of Sara Davidson and Robert Davidson

Book launch and talk at The University of the Fraser Valley.

Book launch and talk with Sara Davidson and Robert Davidson at The University of the Fraser Valley.

Inspired by Haida ceremonial practice, Potlatch as Pedagogy is a resource for teachers written by educator Sara Davidson and her father, renowned artist Robert Davidson.  Sara began writing the book when she realized the traditions of the Haida practiced by her father—holistic, built on relationships, practical, and continuous—could be integrated into contemporary educational practices.

We sat down with Sara and Robert to chat about the book in preparation for its release.

PMP: Sara, what inspired you to write this book?

SD: One of my roles in teacher education is to teach educators and candidates how to integrate Indigenous content, perspectives, and pedagogies into their classroom practices. With the curriculum change in British Columbia that resulted in learning standards that are connected to Indigenous knowledge being introduced across grade levels and curricular areas, educators have become increasingly interested in how to bring that knowledge into their classrooms. Because of the difference in worldviews, some educators do not understand the protocols that may be associated with including Indigenous knowledge in their classes.

When my father first began carving the totem pole, his understanding of the art was still emerging. He did not realize the depth of ceremonial knowledge required to raise the pole. I hoped that by sharing the story about my father learning about the ceremonial knowledge connected with the pole raising, educators might also come to better understand the depth of Indigenous knowledge or at least to consider the different protocols that may be connected with bringing it into the classroom.

In my courses, I also talk a lot about the importance of connecting with local knowledge, and it was my hope that this project could serve as a starting place for thinking about how educators might be able to connect with local knowledge and educational principles to guide their teaching or at the very least to begin to understand the power of doing so.

PMP: The painting on the cover of the book is stunning. Could you talk a bit about what it represents?

SD: My father described this painting as “two working together” or a bow and arrow and it was the title that resonated with me at first. When my father spoke about the painting with me, he described the two faces that he saw in the shapes and the thin black lines of communication and he spoke about the significance of the colours in Haida art from before and after contact with Europeans. I described what I saw when I looked at the painting in the book, but as I mentioned previously, it was really the title that resonated with me – because it speaks to the process that we used to write the book. We really were two working together as we drew upon a process of intergenerational sharing of knowledge. (for more about the painting, see pages 9-10 in the book)

PMP: Your father [Robert Davidson] uses the expression “born in the nick of time.” Could you speak about what that means in relation to learning from your elders and passing that knowledge along to future generations?

SD: This expression would not have been necessary if not for the Potlatch Ban. Without it, we would have been free to pass on our knowledge to future generations in the ways that our ancestors did. However, during the Potlatch Ban, we were very restricted in the knowledge we were able to share.

My father speaks about his generation being “born in the nick of time” because they were at the right age – both old enough and young enough – when the Potlatch Ban was lifted to be able to receive the knowledge from the Elders before they passed on. Though we are now able to share our cultural knowledge without those same restrictions, we now face a similar challenge with our language, and I believe that those who are working to revive the language could also be considered “born in the nick of time” to be able to learn from the few remaining speakers.

PMP: Generally, what are the sk’ad’a principles, and how can they help teachers?

SD: In British Columbia, FNESC developed the First Peoples Principles of Learning which are not specific to an individual nation, but they “represent an attempt to identify common elements in the varied teaching and learning approaches that prevail within particular First Peoples societies” (BC Ministry of Education, n.d.). In working with teacher candidates over the years, I have always encouraged them to work with these principles, but I have also encouraged them to seek local connections and to learn more about how specific communities conceptualize teaching and learning in their local context.

Sk’ad’a is the Haida word for learn and the root word for teach. The sk’ad’a principles are based on stories that my father told me to help me to understand how he learned outside of the school environment when he was growing up. As I listened to the stories, I started to hear themes in what he was telling me. Following the conversations, I sat with the stories and the themes became more clear and these emerged to become the sk’ad’a principles. It is important to note that these are not Haida principles, as they are only based upon my father’s experiences, and I did not consult with the Haida Nation about the principles. I chose to call them the sk’ad’a principles after consulting with a few community members who are more knowledgeable than I am.


PMP: Could you speak about some of the struggles of the Haida people and the steps they took to ensure that their culture survived?

SD: The Canadian government worked very hard to assimilate Indigenous peoples, including the Haida. This included (but was not limited to) the banning of our potlatches which prevented us from remembering and sharing our cultural knowledge with future generations, sending children to residential schools far away from our communities where children were abused and prevented from speaking their ancestral languages, and placing an Indian Agent in Masset to reinforce the Indian Act – punishing those who did not comply. This resulted in the necessity for Haida Elders to find innovative ways to ensure that the knowledge was not lost, including potlatching in secret and sharing the knowledge at Christmas dinners and/or weddings.

When I was doing research for this book, I learned about a specific dance that I will never learn because of a missionary who lived in Masset and prevented us from practicing the dance and passing it on. It is easy to focus on the loss, but I really try to focus instead on the gratitude for the Elders who worked to piece together knowledge of the old ways so that I have strong connections to my Haida culture today.

My father and my uncle started a traditional Haida dance group when I was a young girl, and this has also helped to revive our ancestral knowledge. Participating in this dance group has allowed me to live my Haida ancestry rather than to simply remember it or learn about it in books.

PMP: Robert Davidson’s carving of a totem pole for his village is a vital story in this book. Could you elaborate on that?

SD: I think that the story of the carving of the pole gave us a tangible way to talk about revitalization of cultural knowledge. It began with the stories my father told me about learning outside of the school environment. Through those conversations, I learned about how my father learned – what elements needed to be present for him to learn. As those conversations ended, he began talking about the pole raising, and I realized we had transitioned into something entirely different. He was speaking to me about learning cultural knowledge and protocol. He used the story of carving the pole and raising it in the community to teach me about relearning cultural knowledge after attempts had been made to destroy that knowledge. That experience of carving and raising the pole provided my father with an opportunity to learn that knowledge from the Elders. When he learned that knowledge, he felt compelled to share it and did so through hosting and co-hosting feasts and potlatches. What was particularly interesting to me is that he used those same sk’ad’a principles to share what he had learned.

PMP: Could you talk a bit about the difference between ownership of art and art that “belongs” to the community?

SD: First, to provide a bit of background, there is a moment in the book after my father has finished carving the pole when he is helping the community to move it to where it will be raised. As my father is helping to move the pole his tsinii (grandfather) tells my father that the pole doesn’t belong to him anymore.

I think that if you asked my father, he would say that the pole never did belong to him in the way that we often think about ownership. Both my father and my brother speak about the art emerging from the medium – for example, the wood from which it is carved. But there is this time, that they spend with the art, helping it to emerge, when they are completely connected to the art. They are so connected that when it has been completed, the piece has the ability to tell a story on their behalf. But in order for that story to be shared, the piece has to be let go into the world.

I think that those words that my great-grandfather said to my father have always remained with him because I believe that there is always a moment when the piece is finished and the artist must let the piece go. This is not about the art no longer being attributed to the artist – it is more about honouring the life in the art and the need for art to be out in the world interacting with people in order to complete its purpose. In the case of the pole, it belongs to the community because it created the opportunity for the Elders to remember knowledge and it allowed the community to live the culture once again.

PMP: The story about your great-grandmother putting a paper bag over her head to perform a traditional dance is very moving. Could you speak to the significance of her action, and what it has meant for you and other Haida?

SD: I cannot speak on behalf of others, but I can say that for me this was always an act of courage. Although I was not there, I have always felt that my great-grandmother struggled to share this knowledge, but she knew that it had the potential to die with her. I believe that this gave her the strength she needed to overcome any fears or shame that she may have faced in order to share the dance with my father.

As I mentioned previously, while doing research for this book, I learned of a dance that I will never know because of the Potlatch Ban, and specifically because of a single missionary who lived in Masset – this filled me with a tremendous sense of loss but also anger that I was denied this inheritance. My great-grandmother’s courage to share the dance and my father’s willingness to learn the dance meant that I was not also denied knowing this dance. For that, I am grateful.

Get your own copy of Potlatch as Pedagogy.


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