The latest work of a comics journalist known worldwide for his war reporting depicts stories, people, and places that will be familiar to many northerners.
In Paying the Land, Joe Sacco tackles the complex history of colonialism and resource extraction in the Northwest Territories from the perspective of the Dene.
Some of those featured in the new book say it helped them to see themselves and others in a new light.
Sacco, based in Portland, Oregon, is a Maltese-American journalist and artist known for his immersive comics journalism on topics like the Bosnian war, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Suez crisis.
He told Cabin Radio he wanted to get away from drawing violence in his latest book, instead focusing on how climate change has affected Indigenous people.
“I thought, well, this will be an important topic, but I didn’t think in terms of violence,” he said.
“When I got up there and I began to really learn about the residential school system, it seemed it was pulled back into a realm of violence, a different kind of violence.”
Sacco drew parallels between Paying the Land and his previous books.
“I’m always interested in those people who have been dispossessed and their struggles,” he explained, highlighting his work on refugees in Palestine. “The manifestations are different, the way it played out is different, but the results are sort-of the same and the intention is the same – to dispossess people and gain control of land.”
Sacco came to the Northwest Territories in March 2015 and 2016, to meet and speak with people across the territory. With Yellowknife city councillor Shauna Morgan as his guide, he travelled the winter road from Yellowknife to Fort Simpson, Sambaa K’e, Wrigley, Tulita, and Norman Wells.
Sacco said the main thing he took away from his time in the North is the difference between how westerners and Dene view land. While westerners tend to see it as property for potential development, he said, the Dene view themselves as belonging to the land.
Maltese-American journalist and artist Joe Sacco in a submitted photo.
“That was a real revelation to me as a westerner,” he said. “It seemed to me that everyone I met approached land with the sort of reverence and humility that I thought was a great lesson to learn, especially as a westerner.”
Sacco hopes readers will understand that the impacts of colonialism are still being felt today.
“Colonialism isn’t something that ended or ends when a commission makes a pronouncement about cultural genocide,” he said. “That sort of thing plays out over a long period of time.”
‘It was a good way to be’
There are plenty of familiar faces among the pages of Paying the Land, including former Tulita chief and broadcaster Paul Andrew, journalist and Truth and Reconciliation commissioner Marie Wilson, Gwich’in musician and traditional counsellor William Greenland, and former NWT premier Jim Antoine.
The book details the political journey of another former premier, Stephen Kakfwi.
“He was an astute observer,” Kakfwi said of Sacco. “I think he did a very, very good job.”
The book follows Kakfwi’s involvement in the Berger Inquiry and the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (the precursor to the Dene Nation), leading to the day he retired from the Legislative Assembly.
Stephen Kakfwi depicted leaving the NWT Legislative Assembly in Paying the Land.
Kakfwi said for him, the Legislative Assembly was a place where he worked to help expedite land claim negotiations. He said he never got attached to it as he’s a residential school survivor and it’s not a Dene institution.
“I’ve seen people cry because they lost elections and because they miss being in the corridors, in the halls of the Legislative Assembly,” he said.
“When I was done, I was done. I just walked out and never went back.”
While initially resistant to working with the territorial government, Kakfwi said he was encouraged by chiefs. They told him that “in order to get things done for the Dene, you had to do it for everybody,” something he took to heart during his time as premier.
“The chiefs way back in the day said, you know, we’re not about taking rights away from people, we just want our rights recognized and respect given to our views and our perspective,” he said. “It was a good lesson from the chiefs and it was a good way to be.”
‘I’m an actual comic book character now’
Dëneze Nakehk’o, a founding member of Dene Nahjo, is also depicted in the book. He said he was “honoured” that Sacco turned his attention to the North and brought a fresh perspective as an outsider.
“I think it’s a little easier for him to spot the colonial implications that are enforced on the lives and the livelihood of Indigenous peoples, especially the Dene up here,” he said.
Nakehk’o said he appreciated that Sacco took the time to visit communities and “get a sense of the mystery, the magnificence, and the magnitude of the land and the water up here.”
A panel from Paying the Land.
As a longtime comics fan, Nakehk’o was excited to see himself depicted in Paying the Land. Growing up in Líídlįį Kúę (Fort Simpson), he would lose himself in comic books belonging to his cousin and father.
“We got to escape the reality of trying to be a Brown person in this country,” he said. “Just trying to be acknowledged as a human being is a daily struggle, even from a young age.”
Nakehk’o said he could relate to comic books because he grew up listening to Dene stories about people with medicine powers who could do things like travel great distances and shape-shift into animals. But he didn’t see many characters that looked like him – save for Conan the Barbarian.
With Paying the Land, Nakehk’o said there’s now a comic book that’s all about the Dene that people around the world can read.
“I can check that off my bucket list,” he said. “I think I’ve made it because I’m an actual comic book character now.”