Book Review: “Potlach as Pedagogy” (Sara Florence Davidson & Robert Davidson)

Potlatch as Pedagogy” was recommended to me by Mike Carlson, a teacher at Wandering Spirits school (TDSB) and an Indigenous educational consultant. This book strongly resonates with “The Nordic Secret” and “Ecological Learning“, in that the approaches are student-centred, holistic and reciprocal. What I really enjoyed about this book was the 9 Principles of “Sk’ad’a”, and I think that these will appeal to you as well – especially in this post-pandemic (can I say that yet?!) dawn, where we know that we will have to revisit the purpose of schools (See “The Future of Learning” by Claxton)

You would be interested in this book if you:
1) Wanted to explore how to integrate and embed indigenous ways of teaching into your practice
2) Wanted a conversation between your current approaches to education, and a (possibly) different framework
3) Wanted to learn more about the Haida teachings and philosophy of teaching
4) Are searching for a non-colonial approach to education


“Sk’ad’a” means “To Learn” in the Haida language, and Sara Florence Davidson’s impetus for writing this book is to broaden what it means to learn for all of us, and to promote indigenous ways of learning and teaching into our current system. In this way, breaking down the colonial aspects of our current system:

“This story…is an invitation to learn about the knowledge [my father] received from his family and community. I t is an invitation to reflect on how some of his approaches to learning and teaching might be applied in the classroom. Furthermore, it is an invitation to consider how we might add more depth and meaning to the ways in which we bring Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and pedagogies into our classrooms” (Davidson, 6)

In 1884, the ceremony of Potlatch was banned, as it was deemed an exercise in impoverishing the Haida and other First Nations. However, the purpose and practice of Potlatch was just the opposite: “the potlatch as the legal foundation of our social structure and ensured the transmission of cultural knowledge.” (Davidson, 6)

What I think is significant in how she begins this book, focussing on telling the story of her family, and in so doing creating a history, a relationship with the reader.  Much of her book is based on the teachings and stories of learning from her father, and it is tender as it is deeply informative.

9 Principles of Sk’ad’a

“I am reluctant to admit it now, but initially, I went to my father seeking a list of teaching strategies to use with Indigenous students to support their academic success. I quickly realized, however, that my father would not provide me with such a list. Instead he offered me stories of his childhood intertwined with traditional Haida stories, and reflections on what had made him the success that he is today.” (Davidson, 13)

As the author listens to her father’s stories and teaching, she distils some key fundamentals on how to approach teaching and learning – namely, that you can’t teach without learning 

Principle 1: Learning emerges from strong relationships.
This speaks to having a community to learn with and from; and, that while you may have many teachers, some will impact you more than others based on relationships. So work hard to build relationships, and be mindful of ensuring students have the skills to build and maintain those strong relationships.

Principle 2: Learning emerges from authentic experiences.
As much as possible, learning must be made meaningful to students. Project-based learning and inquiry, where the student is at the centre of the process, and not just focused on the product, are great ways to add authenticity.

Principle 3: Learning emerges from curiosity.
In what ways are our students given opportunities to learn HOW to be curious, to FOLLOW that curiosity, and DISCOVER the power of curiousity?

Principle 4: Learning occurs through observation.
Mentorships, internships, apprenticeships are lost art forms in many ways; however, when teaching students, how might you adopt one or all of these roles? For example, don’t approach the subject history as teaching history to students; rather, approach it as building and developing the historians within them.

Principle 5: Learning occurs through contribution.
Transactional teaching can only take students so far.  How are students put into positions of teaching others, teaching you – the teacher?

Principle 6: Learning occurs through recognizing and encouraging strengths.
The author relays her father’s story of subtle encouragement, leaving carving tools out on purpose so that he could practice what would become his craft. How are we encouraging students to pursue a strength? An area of interest?

Principle 7: Learning honours the power of the mind.
Visualization is a strong theme in this section of the book. Being able to have the mind lead the body towards a goal, or onwards on a journey relies on being able to see the end goal.

Principle 8: Learning honours history and story.
The Haida word for heart is the same as the word for throat – the connection between being able feel and speak one’s truth, and to listen and learn from the truth of others. In this case, “There have been many times when my father has looked to the past to help me in the present, and occasionally, he has guided me to the past to help my in the present, and occasionally, he has guided me using advice that comes from out stories of Raven.” (Davidson, 20)

Principle 9: Learning honours aspects of spirituality and protocol.
To me, this principle speaks to teaching as an act of connection, of ceremony and ways of being. For example, you aren’t just teaching “Maths”, but you would be teaching a language, a different way of seeing the world. This is a powerful reframing, because it opens one up to see the colonial historical thinking in Maths. One cannot separate the implicit teachings from the overt content, and as educators we must be weary and aware of this.

Teaching as Reciprocity

Reciprocity is a strong theme throughout this book, and how it can inform our teaching practices. The stories of her father are full of examples of how we can give more to get more; how we can move beyond the traditional cycle of assessments into feedback for growth, cycles of continual improvement.

My father is generous with his knowledge and shares what he knows whenever he is asked to do so. He believes that sharing our knowledge allows us to gain new insights and that withholdin information stunts our ability to grow” (Davidson, 13)

The Haida elders honoured the educational role of history and story  through their commitment to remembering the old knowledge. They shared stories from previous generations at the  picnics and dinners.” (Davidson, 34)

In this shifting educational market towards a sharing economy, this fourth industrial revolution, how can we ensure that education prioritizes not only these principles of Sk’ad’a, but that of reciprocity.  According to the WEF: “There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent.”  to ensure that we aren’t leaving behind valuable knowledge, and ways of being in the world? (WEF, Jan 14th, 2016)

Just because you can do it differently…

Throughout this book there are incredible photos of the author, her father and their community learning dances, dressed in traditional and ceremonial clothes, and, what struck me, raising a totem pole. There must have been more effective, more efficient ways of raising that pole. But just because there were, doesn’t mean it is the right way.

I think about this in light of the shifts that have happened over the last two years with technology integration, the rise of virutal and blended learning. How might we, as educators, call upon our own wisdom, and our collective wisdom, to be responsible and intentional in the creation of a community of learners, and a learning organization? Just because we can move faster through curriculum, doesn’t mean we should. We need to take our time and hold space for those moments in teaching where the purpose is greater than just curriculum coverage. We have to examine our practices and see where we can do this with most impact.


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