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Haida authors’ picture book series shows an Indigenous approach to learning

Sarah Florence Davidson and Robert Davidson release the last two books in their series
Sara Florence Davidson and her father, Robert Davidson, released the last two stories in their picture book series in September 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Sara Florence Davidson and her father, renowned artist Robert Davidson, have released the last two picture books in their Sk’ad’a series. Each of the four books documents a different day in the authors’ lives, from learning to carve argillite to fishing on the Yakoun River, and along the way, they immerse the reader in an Indigenous approach to teaching and learning.

Sk’ad’a means to learn in the Haida language.

The series highlights moments in Robert’s life, from boyhood to being a grandparent, and illustrate many of the principles of Indigenous pedagogy (method and practice of teaching) that Sara studies as a professor at Simon Fraser University.

“A lot of the work I do is in Indigenous education and really encouraging educators and teacher candidates to think about education differently and different approaches to education. So I had this idea, well, one of the ideas is intergenerational learning and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to share these stories from different points in my father’s life?” Sara explained.

The first two books are told from Robert’s perspective before Sara was even born. To ensure she got the information correct, she conducted lengthy interviews with her father.

“The reason my father is a co-author on all of the books is because he made these huge oral contributions and it’s really important for me and my work, both at the university, but also in the work that I do more out in the community, is to acknowledge and honour those contributions.”

For the third book in the series, Returning to the Yakoun River, Sara conducted similarly lengthy interviews with her brother, Ben Davidson, as it was about an experience they had together when their father would take them fishing at a river on Haida Gwaii.

“That was a really special time in my life to go and spend time at the Yakoun River and when my father was sharing stories with me, there were some really interesting teachings that he was talking about when he was talking about those times.”

The last book, Dancing with Our Ancestors, tells the story of Sara, her brother, her father and her stepmother attending a potlatch in Hydaburg, Alaska.

“That book initially was supposed to be about that potlatch day. Before I had a chance to write that book my brother passed away and so that shifted the significance of that story because it ended up being the last time that we had danced together.”

Sara said it was also an opportunity to speak about the potlatch prohibition and to invite more people to learn about that part of Canadian history.

“There’s this perception that our traditional practices or ceremonial practices are in the past and so that idea of capturing what a potlatch is today, just to remind people that we’re still here. We’re still here, we’re still practicing our ceremonies and so that’s why that was a really important story to share.”

While they were written in a picture book format, the books are essentially historical fiction, with the last one, about the potlatch in Hydaburg almost non-fiction, even down to the illustrations.

Janine Gibbons, the Haida artist who illustrated the books, painted the images from photographs and, in cases where there weren’t photographs to go off, did her own research to ensure that they were true to life.

The collection really honours the people in the stories, which Sara said was important to her and one of the reasons she wanted to write them. The characters in the books had a significant impact on her father’s life and in turn on her own life and Sara wanted to make sure people remember them and learn from them.

“I’ve been working with my father and he tells me a lot of these stories about the elders who were alive during his time and what he learned from them and for me, I feel really grateful that I’ve had access to those teachings but I felt really sad about, for example, my brother’s children who will obviously never meet these people.”

Sara hopes that these books will fill that gap for her nieces and nephews. She also hopes people from other places will be able to relate to the tales and that they might spark something from their own memory.

READ MORE: Haida Gwaii brothers appointed to the Order of Canada

READ MORE: Robert Davidson the focus of new documentary

 Kaitlyn Bailey | Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
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