Rhonda Lee McIsaac
Haida educator SGaan jaadgu san glans Sara Florence Davidson was recently back on Haida Gwaii, consulting with SHIP elders about a new children’s literacy project that has a Haida twist. The project, which is supported by Indigenous Storybooks, is based on the premise that children’s books that are culturally relevant allow children to connect to their traditional language and identity, as well as to literacy. The ability to read is a valuable skill for all children, but for Indigenous children, having access to children’s books written and recorded in their traditional languages is also important and can help foster a stronger love for reading. SGaan jaadgu san glans has been working to create such resources and she is working collaboratively with SHIP elders and Xaad Kil speakers in Gaw in an effort to get children’s books translated into Xaayda and Xaad kil for children, families, and educators.
SGaan jaadgu san glans has worked as a classroom teacher in both Gaw and K’wan’dlIn Whitehorse, and it was during that time that she began to focus on literacy as a key to student success. “When I worked in the classroom, I noticed that struggles with literacy acted as a barrier for many students and limited their ability to graduate. Because I wanted to find better ways to support students to strengthen their print literacy, I returned to school to learn more about how I could help. I completed a diploma, master’s degree, and PhD focused on how to support students to strengthen their abilities with print literacy in the hopes that this might lead to increased graduation rates” says SGaan jaadgu san glans.
Through the Indigenous Storybooks project, SGaan jaadgu san glans has worked with SHIP to translate four children’s books into Xaayda kil; SHIP has also has also shared four of their own children’s books with the project. In the north, language speaker Jaskwaan Bedard also translated and recorded four children’s books into Xaad kil for the project. These books are being considered for inclusion on the Indigenous Storybooks project website. If approved, this will increase the number of Haida children’s books. It will also add Xaayda and Xaad Kil to a growing list of Indigenous languages that may be read and listened to online.
An equally important aspect to literacy is respect for community protocols around research and the sharing of intellectual property and cultural knowledge. SGaan jaadgu san glans has come back to Haida Gwaii to work with SHIP elders in person, as she takes her community work seriously and wants to do things right. Doing things right means being present, sharing knowledge about the literacy project, and listening to all the concerns brought up by the language speakers at SHIP, and she spent all day doing just that. In the end, the SHIP Elders were left to make a decision about how they want to proceed with the Indigenous Storybook project. It is now a matter of seeking approval for the newly developed Xaayda Kil resources to be used in the online platform, if that is what the SHIP Elders would like to do.
Not all stories are the same and this is especially true for the stories used by Indigenous Storybooks. The stories that are available on the platform, developed by Liam Doherty, a PhD candidate at UBC, are open-licensed. Open-licensed stories can be accessed online. They can be read online by anyone anywhere. Stories can also be downloaded, or printed, for later reading – all without paying a fee. Permission to do this is granted through the Creative Commons license that is provided by the authors when the books are initially placed online. This free access gives families, community members, educators, and children options to increase their reading resources. The aim is to increase reading and audio resources in Indigenous languages and to promote a love of reading and stories. It also means having exposure to different languages as more audio options become available in different languages. “The bottom line is that I want Indigenous students and all students to have choices in their lives, and I believe that if we find better ways to support learners to engage with print literacy, we can help them to open doors for themselves” says SGaan jaadgu san glans.
The educational and cultural benefits that come with these resources are great for students here and also those who are off island as well. What was of particular interest to the Elders at SHIP was that Haida students in other parts of the world will be able to access Haida language resources regardless of where they are. This is also important to SGaan jaadgu san glans as it is a need she identified while she was growing up off-island. “I went to school off-island, so I did not always have access to Haida language. Because of residential schools, I grew up without hearing Haida spoken on a daily basis. Although I was lucky to be a part of the Rainbow Creek Dancers from a young age which allowed me to learn our songs and dances, I know that it would have meant a lot to me if I was able to hear Haida in my school where I was often the only Indigenous student. I think it would have strengthened my connection to my Haida ancestry and family” she says of her experience. “We now have the technology to support those connections for students – particularly those who are living away from their traditional territories. We have begun the project with Xaad Kil and Xaayda Kil, but we are hoping to continue to expand as we develop relationships with other communities and territories” she says of the growing literacy project.
Indigenous Storybooks is a sister project to Storybooks Canada, which is led by UBC professor Dr. Bonny Norton. Indigenous Storybooks is growing as development of resources continues. Another part of the project is to locate culturally appropriate resources to support educators to include traditional stories in their classrooms. These resources are initially reviewed by teacher educator Christine Bridge and then by SGaan jaadgu san glans. “We want to ensure that the resources are respectfully gathered, so we look for evidence of this, as well as the protocols that were used, before we add them to the resource page” she explains.
Indigenous Storybooks is a growing project that will continue to develop under the work that SGaan jaadgu san glans puts in – all while she is teaching full time in the Teacher Education Department at University of the Fraser Valley. “I will be continuing to work on this project” she assured the SHIP Elders as they congratulated her on her new position. “I have to work full time to support my project habit” she laughs brightly, sharing with the elders that she’s worked on multiple projects in the past to ensure she has the ability to support her passion for literacy. She will be back again next year to continue discussions with SHIP elders about the options she outlined just as their school program was winding down for the summer. “School is almost out” says Gaaying.uuhlas Roy Jones, “that is why we will wait” to make any decisions about how the Xaayda Kil resources should be made accessible within the Indigenous Storybooks literacy project.