From the “heir to R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman” (Economist), a masterful work of comics journalism about indigenous North America, resource extraction, and our debt to the natural world
The Dene have lived in the vast Mackenzie River Valley since time immemorial, by their account. To the Dene, the land owns them, not the other way around, and it is central to their livelihood and very way of being. But the subarctic Canadian Northwest Territories are home to valuable resources, including oil, gas, and diamonds. With mining came jobs and investment, but also road-building, pipelines, and toxic waste, which scarred the landscape, and alcohol, drugs, and debt, which deformed a way of life.
In Paying the Land, Joe Sacco travels the frozen North to reveal a people in conflict over the costs and benefits of development. The mining boom is only the latest assault on indigenous culture: Sacco recounts the shattering impact of a residential school system that aimed to “remove the Indian from the child”; the destructive process that drove the Dene from the bush into settlements and turned them into wage laborers; the government land claims stacked against the Dene Nation; and their uphill efforts to revive a wounded culture.
Against a vast and gorgeous landscape that dwarfs all human scale, Paying the Land lends an ear to trappers and chiefs, activists and priests, to tell a sweeping story about money, dependency, loss, and culture—recounted in stunning visual detail by one of the greatest cartoonists alive.
Eisner-winner Sacco (Safe Area Gora de) travels to northern Canada to talk with members of the Dene, a First Nations group located largely in the Northwest Territories, in this arresting exploration of a community on the brink. Fracking is the hotly contested issue at hand; it brings money and jobs, but devastates the environment. Sacco delves deeper than the current debate, exploring the long, fraught relationship between the Dene, the Canadian government, and the land. The powerful middle chapters collect first-person stories of the atrocity haunting Sacco's investigation: the mass forced separation of aboriginal children from their families to be "reeducated." Separating young people from their communities, Sacco argues, robbed generations of identity and direction, as Sacco learns from the testimonies of Dene people from all walks of life, from tribal leaders and elders who grew up in close-knit nomadic tribes to a young man hunting his first caribou. Sacco's densely composed, meticulous black-and-white art has grown even more realistic and carefully observed in this work, though he still presents himself as a caricature with buckteeth and Coke-bottle glasses. He wisely withdraws his presence to the background, allowing the Dene and other locals he interviews to take the spotlight, interspersing close-ups of faces with images of the breathtaking northern vistas. Sacco again proves himself a master of comics journalism. \n