In 1884, the Canadian government enacted a ban on the potlatch, the foundational ceremony of the Haida people. The tradition, which determined social structure, transmitted cultural knowledge, and redistributed wealth, was seen as a cultural impediment to the government’s aim of assimilation.
The tradition did not die, however; the knowledge of the ceremony was kept alive by the Elders through other events until the ban was lifted. In 1969, a potlatch was held. The occasion: the raising of a totem pole carved by Robert Davidson, the first the community had seen in close to 80 years. From then on, the community publicly reclaimed, from the Elders who remained to share it, the knowledge that has almost been lost.
Sara Florence Davidson, Robert’s daughter, would become an educator. Over the course of her own education, she came to see how the traditions of the Haida practiced by her father—holistic, built on relationships, practical, and continuous—could be integrated into contemporary educational practices. From this realization came the roots for this book.
Sara Florence Davidson is a Haida educator and scholar with a PhD in Literacy Education. She is currently an Assistant Professor in the Teacher Education Department at the University of the Fraser Valley, where she works with teacher candidates to bring Indigenous content, perspectives, and pedagogies into their classrooms.
Sara’s research has focused upon the use of autobiographical and narrative writing to engage in the writing process and to explore identities, as well as the mandating of Indigenous content in the curriculum. She has also explored ways to merge the strengths of Indigenous and non-Indigenous pedagogical practices. She is the project lead on the Indigenous Storybooks project, where she explores how traditional Indigenous stories can be used to strengthen literacy practices. She has also taught adolescents in the K–12 system, and has worked with Indigenous students making the transition from rural to urban centres for their education.
Robert Davidson is one of Canada’s most respected and important contemporary artists. Of Haida descent, he is a master carver of totem poles and masks and works in a variety of media as a printmaker, painter, and jeweler. A leading figure in the renaissance of Haida art and culture, Davidson is renowned as an impeccable craftsman whose creative and personal interpretation of traditional Haida form is unparalleled.
For more than forty years, he has produced an internationally acclaimed body of work found in a number of collections, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Southwest Museum (Los Angeles), and the Artists for Kids Gallery (North Vancouver). He holds honorary degrees from the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University, Southern Methodist University, and the Emily Carr Institute. Davidson is a recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, the Order of British Columbia, the Governor General’s Award, and the Order of Canada.
Written by daughter-father team Sara Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson, Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning through Ceremony is a short, yet richly-packed book of interest to a wide audience, but particularly to educators seeking more inclusive approaches of Indigenous ways of teaching and learning. Drawing from the professional work and life experiences of its co-authors – Dr. Sara Florence Davidson is a Haida educator and scholar, and Robert Davidson is an internationally renowned artist of Haida ancestry – Potlatch as Pedagogy combines “memories, stories, teachings, and potential educational practices.” In a straightforward, conversational tone, Sara Florence Davidson recounts the Davidson family’s personal history; the historical and cultural context of the potlatch ceremony within the social structure of the Haida people; the impact of the Potlatch Ban by the Canadian government from 1884-1951; the passing down of knowledge from Haida Elders to Robert Davidson; her experiences teaching Indigenous youth; and her relationship with her father.
An opening chapter explains how Potlatch as Pedagogy was developed. Initially, Sara Florence Davidson’s interest was in understanding how her father’s learning might help her classroom work. As she writes, “… I went to my father seeking a list of teaching strategies to use with my Indigenous students to support their academic success.” But instead of receiving a list, she came to understand, through her father’s life stories and the traditional Haida stories that he had learned and shared, certain themes which developed into nine principles (sk’ad’a) of learning and teaching. As Sara Florence Davidson explains, sk’ad’ada is the Haida word for “teach,” whose base sk’ad’a means “learn.” Through sharing excerpts of her interviews with her father, as well as her personal narrative, she describes the nine sk’ad’a as: learning through strong relationships; authentic experiences; curiosity; observation; contribution; recognizing and encouraging strengths; honouring the power of the mind; Indigenous history and stories; and spirituality and protocol.
As Potlatch as Pedagogy builds on Sara Florence Davidson’s interviews of her father, it serves to document and demonstrate her own learning through the guidance of “Elders and knowledge keepers instead of from books and courses.” Later sections trace the revitalization of the potlatch ceremony; touch upon residential schools; and recall Robert Davidson’s experiences as a young man with carving and raising a totem pole in his village in 1969 for the first time in almost one hundred years, and his experiences in attending and co-hosting potlatches through the ensuing years.
Although there is some repetition in Potlatch as Pedagogy and the stories and content don’t always flow in a linear way (which can slow down the reading process), the summary boxes included with certain chapters help reinforce content and connections to specific sk’ad’a. In the book’s final chapter, Sara Florence Davidson discusses how the Haida potlatch has been used as a form of pedagogy. She also expands upon each sk’ad’a with thoughts on how to incorporate these principles into action within contemporary educational settings. Overall, she shows how linking storytelling and lived experiences with each of the sk’ad’a can inform and strengthen pedagogy and lead to innovative teaching practices.
This is not a book to be read quickly; it requires reflection to fully appreciate its content, purpose, and value. But time spent with Potlatch as Pedagogy will connect you with the Davidsons’ stories and enrich your understanding of Haida knowledge, culture, and historical struggles; and stimulate thought for considering how Indigenous knowledge, storytelling, and pedagogies could be included in educational practices.
The back matter includes an Appendix with a timeline of feasts and potlatches (co)hosted by Robert Davidson and a list of references.
Potlatch as Pedagogy is wonderfully wise, hopeful, heartful, eloquent, and loving! Every teacher candidate and teacher needs to read this book. The authors expertly evoke the history and culture of the Haida as they call forth the sadness as well as the hope and joy of generations of people who were misunderstood and mistreated. In this time of Truth and Reconciliation, we all need to attend to this book.
—Dr. Carl Leggo, Professor, Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia