Sara Florence Davidson

Potlatch as Pedagogy: Sara Florence Davidson Carves Out Space for Herself in Education

The daughter of an artist and someone exploring the craft herself, Sara Florence Davidson has carved out her own path in the field of education. Her Haida name is Sgaan Jaadgu San Glans which means Killer Whale Woman of the Dawn. She belongs to the Yahgu Jaanas raven clan from Haida Gwaii and she’s an Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University in the Faculty of Education. Since 2018, she’s written and co-authored several books.

Growing up, Davidson played school more than she played house. In her education, Davidson attended many different elementary schools. In grade nine, she moved in with her dad and finished high school in Surrey, BC. She did her undergraduate degree in psychology in Halifax at Dalhousie University. After completing her degree, she became a house parent for underage youth in Vancouver.

Later, while living and working in Denmark as an au pair, she was inspired by the excitement of the International Schools and decided to explore education. When she returned to BC, she movedto Haida Gwaii where was hired as an educational assistant. Then just over a year later, she returned to school to complete a teacher training program through SFU in Northern BC.

After teaching for a few years in Haida Gwaii, she got accepted at UBC where she completed a diploma and a master’s degree in literacy education before moving to Whitehorse where, she taught at a high school. She became interested in supporting writing and pursued a Ph.D at UBC in language and literacy education and graduated with her doctorate in 2016. Davidson worked in Indigenous education at UBC for a year then moved to UFV for a couple of years in teacher education, and then moved over to SFU in 2020 in hopes of doing more research.

“As an Indigenous woman in post-secondary, it can be very challenging and I've been in a lot of spaces, and I've spoken with a lot of people and it can just be really tricky to be an Indigenous woman in the academy,” she reflects. Pursuing meaningful research, collaborating with her father and learning to carve, she has found joy to balance out the challenges.

Davidson’s research includes a focus on Indigenous pedagogies, and she’s documenting her experiences with intergenerational learning from her fatherShe’s working on a new book based on those lessons and experiences She is also collaborating with the Haida Gwaii school district leadership who are working with the Sk’ad’a principles outlined  in Potlatch as Pedagogy she’s been excited to see the principles applied in educational settings.

For one of her comprehensive exams for her doctorate, she interviewed her father to learn about his educational experiences as a boy growing up on Haida Gwaii. As the interviews progressed to talk about his pole raising in 1969, she realized that there was a lot more information than she had time to learn, so she suggested to her father that they return to the topic when she had more time. When they returned to the project a couple years later, she realized it was better-suited for a book.

Deciding to write it and shop it around later, she serendipitously met her future publisher, Portage and Main, at a conference and they asked if she was working on anything. She described the project and later met about the project and decided to publish Potlatch as Pedagogy. She has continued to publish with them since. Some of the stories that her father told her that went into it became picture books to help educators engage with Indigenous pedagogy.

Her advice to students thinking about leaving their community to go learn or travel abroad is to do something they are excited about and find out what’s out there in terms of opportunities. “Pay attention to what interests you and what excites you,” she urges. She regrets not completing an English degree, thinking it wouldn’t provide her with employment opportunities. Staying connected to a support system and services for Indigenous students is something else she recommends.

“The other thing to be aware of is that in some of our communities, there is a fear of education and a fear that we will become different people because we're pursuing [mainstream] education. I think we just need to be sure to connect with other people who are pursuing education so that we can support one another through that,” she reflects.

Another obstacle Davidson faced in university was racism. She created a YouTube video about her experience. She also worked towards physical goals like learning to improve her swimming so she could complete a mini-triathlon, focussing on incremental improvement during challenging times and maintaining balance overall.

If she could give a message to her younger self it would be about the need for perspective. “Things that we think matter so much and kind of destroy our souls when we're young, they really aren't that important…. I always put a lot of pressure on myself to achieve in particular ways and I know that was connected to the negative stereotypes of Indigenous people. I dedicated my life to proving everybody wrong and I don't know that I proved anybody wrong but I made myself miserable in the process,” she reflects.

To keep her mental health in check, Davidson loves going to her dad’s studio to visit and carve. While she doesn’t feel talented, she treasures the time with her dad in the beautiful space and shifts away from her very mental work. Otherwise, she enjoys cooking, doing yoga, reading, drinking tea, and going to counselling. She is also learning to focus on finding joy in her life.

For inspiration, Davidson looks to incredible books written by Indigenous women, her father’s carving talent, and the way her family has come through the grief of losing her brother suddenly and continues to contribute to the world. To share inspiration, she suggests people pursue their passions, if they can’t make a living at it to at least create space in their lives to engage and enjoy them. “If we're able to do that, I think that it will improve our lives immensely. I think we'll be able to contribute more to others when we fill ourselves first,” she shares.

Raised by a carver and as someone exploring the craft herself, Sara Florence Davidson is continuing to carve out her own path in the field of education. Pursuing her passions and sharing brilliance like Potlatch as Pedagogy, she’s shifting perspectives in classrooms all over. Navigating the tricky ground of the academy, she’s finding her way, her truth and her joy. 

Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.

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