Graphic Nonfiction Review: Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

Paying the Land by Joe Sacco. Metropolitan Books, 2020. 9781627799034. 272pp.

Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine, Safe Are Gorazde) heads north from Yellow Knife into Canada’s Northwest Territories in a borrowed truck with his guide, Shauna. They travel to places that can only be accessed on winter roads when the ground is frozen. There Sacco meets and interviews many of the Dene. “”Dene means ‘the People’ and in Canada’s North the term refers to the related group of First Nations whose culture is rooted in the land.”

In Tulit’a, they find a small town of 600 where the oil boom is on pause. Unemployment is high. It’s clear there are folks on all sides of the resource extraction issue, and that this community (and others he visits) are dealing with the history of the territory and what was done to their people, from the Catholic Church to the residential schools and the abuse (substance, physical, sexual) that is still rampant. But there are people who remember living a subsistence lifestyle, and others who see what living on the land once meant and what it might mean to do so again.

“Unmooring the indigenous people — in fact, erasing the essence of their indigeneity — was long Canada’s official policy.” And now the Dene are trying to get justice for themselves and their communities. Opinions vary from community to community, and from person to person, on the best way forward. Handouts and government aid seem to have many downsides, but the government is the most reliable employer in many areas. It’s clear that many find power in connecting with their ancestors and the way they lived, and in feeling that they have something to offer to their communities both in the present and the future.

As always, Sacco draws himself into his book. One of my favorite parts of an otherwise heavy work of graphic nonfiction is a light moment when he refers to himself as Joe of the North, as he tries to drag a fishing net from beneath a frozen lake. Mostly he’s here as a listener and a recorder, helping us get to know the folks he speaks with by drawing and quoting them with a level of care I see in nowhere else. If Sacco took the time to put someone into one of his books they are important; I know they’re worth listening to. (This book, like Sacco’s other nonfiction, begs to be read again and again.)


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