Dr. Sara Davidson on Indigenous Ways of Learning and Developing Ethical and Collaborative Approaches to Research

December 10, 2020

Sara Florence Davidson is a Haida/Settler educator and scholar who has a PhD in Literacy Education. She is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education where she works in Indigenous education.

One of the main areas of focus in Sara’s research is seeking ways to merge the strengths of Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives and pedagogical practices in the K-12 system. She is also the project lead on Indigenous Storybooks where she is learning about how traditional Indigenous stories can be used to strengthen text-based and Indigenous literacy practices.

Sara is the co-author of Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning through Ceremony, which she wrote with her father, Haida artist Robert Davidson.

Welcome to SFU Dr. Davidson. Please tell us a little bit about yourself including your academic and professional backgrounds.

Before coming to SFU, I was an Assistant Professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, where I taught English Language Arts methods and Indigenous education courses. I also worked as a lecturer at the University of British Columbia (UBC) teaching Indigenous education.

In 2016, I completed my Ph.D. in Literacy Education at UBC. Before that, I was a classroom teacher for nine years in British Columbia (BC) and Yukon, where I taught grades 6-12. I have also worked with Adult Learners. Much of my classroom experience has been working with Indigenous students in rural settings or supporting students who are making the transition to larger urban centres to complete their education.

I am interested in ways to make research accessible to a wider audience as well. Over the past year, I collaborated with my father to write a series of picture books based on our family stories. One of the purposes of these books is to use stories to teach more about the sk’ad’a principles (a set of pedagogical principles introduced in Potlatch as Pedagogy). These stories provide examples of intergenerational learning, as they follow my father through his life as a grandson learning from his grandfather, a son learning from his father, a father teaching his children, and a grandfather teaching his grandchildren.

I am also an SFU alumni, as I completed my teacher education in the SFU Professional Development Program for teacher preparation (PDP) in the Northwest Teacher Education Constortium (NWTEC ) in Terrace, BC.

Sarah Davidson Headshot credit: Farah Nosh. Masks carved by: Ben Davidson. The images of the masks have been used in Sara Davidson’s upcoming publication. Davidson, S. F. (in press). The paper bag mask: On hiding, ceding, resisting, and claiming in the academy. In E. Lyle & S. Mahani (Eds.), Sister scholars: Untangling issues of identity as women in academe. DIO Press.

Please share the type of research that you will be conducting as our new faculty member at the faculty of Education.

The main focus of my work is supporting educators to respectfully bring Indigenous content, perspectives, and pedagogies into their classrooms. I am currently collaborating with Dr. Leyton Schnellert from UBC on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) funded project to learn about the potential of collaborative educational change networks to support educators to integrate relational and culturally sustaining pedagogies into their teaching. I am also continuing my work with Indigenous stories and storytelling with the Indigenous Storybooks project. I will be continuing with collaboration with my father, Haida artist Robert Davidson, to learn more about Haida art's role in transmitting knowledge through the lens of Indigenous literacies.

You research has focused on Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of learning and pedagogy. Can you please tell us a little more about that?

I grew up attending mainstream schools in the Lower Mainland, and though I found ways to succeed, my abilities were measured in limited ways. This experience (and many others) led me to believe that the knowledge and methods of demonstrating understanding that I gained outside of school were inferior. In my master's work, I began to explore how to draw on the strengths of Indigenous and non-Indigenous pedagogies in mainstream educational settings. I believe that success with finding this balance will support Indigenous students and other students who bring different knowledge systems and ways of knowing with them to school. It is important for us to remember that for many Indigenous students this knowledge is learned intergenerationally and it is rooted in their relationships with family and ancestors.

What impact would you like to see your research have on communities and society at large?

In my doctoral work, I developed an ethical framework to inform my research practices using Jo-Ann Archibald’s (2008) Indigenous Storywork principles. By using these principles in my work, I was able to share an approach to research and ethics with an Indigenous community as well as the research community. I hope that by modelling ethical and collaborative approaches to research, their use can be promoted more widely. I would also like to find ways to start with reciprocity; that is, I would like us to begin all of our research by exploring the contributions that we will make to the communities with whom we are collaborating.

What suggestion would you like to give to prospective graduate students interested in your field of research?

My identities are centred in all of the work that I do. Therefore, I would suggest exploring their identities and how those identities might inform the work they intend to do. For example, in my doctoral work, I drew upon my experiences as a traditional Haida dancer to guide my research practice and used the Dogfish Mother dance to better understand my process. I would also suggest reflecting on the contributions they want to make and how those contributions can be achieved through their research priorities and practices.


Archibald, Jo-Ann. (2008). Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit. British Columbia: UBC Press.

Davidson, S. & Davidson, R. (2018). Potlatch as Pedagogy: Learning Through Ceremony. Winnipeg: Portage & Main Press.

Davidson, S. F. (in press). The paper bag mask: On hiding, ceding, resisting, and claiming in the academy. In E. Lyle & S. Mahani (Eds.), Sister scholars: Untangling issues of identity as women in academe. DIO Press.