Paying the Land is the latest work from acclaimed comics journalist Joe Sacco, who is best known for his works like Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza. In Paying the Land, Sacco turns his eye towards the Dene, who are the people indigenous to the Mackenzie River Valley in the Canadian Northwest. Sacco recounts the the impact that the booming mining and oil industries have had on the lives of the Dene Nation. Sacco then works his way back through other struggles the Dene have faced as they continually weigh the benefits of industrialization with the costs to their way of life.
Sacco structures his graphic novel much the same way you’d expect to see in other visual medium like a documentary film. Sacco illustrates the people he’s interviewing while they recount their story as if they were talking on camera. In between these panels, Sacco has interwoven illustrations of his journey through the area and the history and topics that his subjects discuss in their interviews. The style has a way of establishing a human connection that would be lacking otherwise. It is so much more effective than simply re-telling the history as you’d find in a history book. It’s important to note that Sacco is an outsider here, and there’s always a risk of getting the story wrong when you are writing about a group of people that you are not a part of. But it seems like Sacco did his homework and his purpose was not one of exploitation, but to use his platform and skills to share an important cultural legacy and struggle that might otherwise go unheard.
The history of the Dene is one that will surely be familiar to anyone who has learned about the history of indigenous people across the globe. One distinction between the subjugation of the Dene and Native Americans in the United States is that the method of subjugation in the case of the Dene was mostly bureaucracy instead of violence. Rather than forcefully remove the people from the land, the Canadian government signed treaties stripping the Dene of any ownership claims in return for a pittance. There may have been less bloodshed, but Sacco makes clear that the end result has largely been the same. Paying the Land explores the impact these treaties have had on the Dene and the division that has occurred as members struggle with taking government resources and trying to reclaim their land and identity.
Beyond treaties and bureaucracy, the Canadian government also used several methods in an attempt to “reform” the Dene so that they followed a more Euro-centric culture. Particularly brutal was the practice of kidnapping children from their parents so they could attend state-sponsored schools hundreds of miles from home. The curriculum offered in these residential schools was built on beating the cultural roots out of the children. The government did this in an effort to eradicate the Dene culture and assimilate the indigenous tribes into those that more closely aligned with the government’s idea of Canada. It’s truly harrowing to witness the adults recount the horror stories of abuse at the hands of the state and the church in these “schools”.
The later portion of the graphic novel largely focuses on how the impacts industrialization locally and globally have changed the way of life for the Dene. As the Dene accept access to more amenities and luxuries of modern Western culture (snow-mobiles, modern electronics, mass-produced food and alcohol, cell phones, etc…) it has caused some divisions in the community. Some accept these changes as the price to pay for conforming to Western norms, but other members of the tribe feel like the Dene culture and history is being lost. On top of serious local issues like rampant alcoholism, global problems like climate change are rearing their ugly heads, as well. Many among the Dene still depend on the land and water for at least some portion of their diet and income, and global warming is creating environmental changes that could threaten those sources.
What Sacco has crafted in Paying the Land is a centuries-long history of a people that’s told in their own voice. The amount of research, investigation, and interviews done by Sacco surely parallels that of the very best of the investigative journalism field. Sacco’s knack for weaving a compelling narrative from the bits and pieces of Dene history and first-hand accounts from the members of the community work to create an engrossing read. It’s surely one of the better comic book histories I’ve read and is certainly worth your time. Joe Sacco is not an artist that has anything left to prove, yet his dedication to the craft of comics journalism remains as strong as ever.