Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

What does it mean to be aboriginal -- to be living in the place your ancestors have for so long it fades into legend and myth? And how does that intersect with living in the modern, global world -- should it? Can it?

Joe Sacco's recent big nonfictional graphic account, Paying the Land, is about that, if you want to say it's "about" something. Sacco is a journalist, though, so it's more accurate to say this is the story of how he went to this place, talked to these people, and learned about their lives and issues.

This time around, the place is Canada's Northwest Territories, specifically the Mackenzie River Valley. The people are the Dene, a group of First Nations people who are aboriginal to that area -- Sacco talked to dozens of them, from elders and chiefs to young activists, across many towns and areas and tribes over what seems to be a few years. Their lives and issues make up this book, but the core, if I had to boil it down, is that question of history and modernity, most immediately in the clash over resource extraction and engagement with the various (white-dominated and -controlled) governments that rule Canada and the Dene people.

Again, Sacco is our viewpoint. He keeps himself in the story; this story only exists because he is telling it. He's not trying to translate the Dene concerns, and pretend that he's some pure mirror of their world. He knows he has biases and preconceptions, and that he's also getting pieces of complex stories and histories from multiple sides, all with their own agendas and preferences. There is no "Dene viewpoint" on anything - there's what this one person thinks, and what this other person wants, and a rough consensus in some other village on a third topic.

So this is not the story of how heroic First Nations people are fighting the evil rapacious oil companies, who are trying to poison their sacred lands. It's also not the story of how smart First Nations people are using demand for natural resources to provide economic development and opportunity to their communities. There are people in the book who believe in both of those stories, and are trying to make those stories true - sometimes the same people in different circumstances and places. But the reality is more complex and mixed: there will be some development. Some of it will benefit the Dene. But how much, and where, and who, and when, and, most importantly, how the agreements are structured and who has a hand in them? Those are all in dispute, and things are always in dispute among humans when big changes and big money is at stake.

As always, Sacco combines all of a cartoonist's skills: close observation of faces and body language, careful notes on what people say and do, endless hours spent over a drawing board making the pictures and words line up as closely and as clearly as possible. Paying the Land is a big, messy, dense story about complicated people in a complicated world. I know of no one else in comics doing anything like this, certainly on this scale. This is big, serious, in-depth journalism - just in a format we rarely see.

It's an impressive book. If nothing else, it will push readers out of a complacent, simplistic view of "Indians" or "aboriginals" and easy Facebook sloganeering. Sacco engages as deeply as he can with these Dene leaders and their concerns, and I believe he's presenting it all as clearly and truly as he can, as best he understands it. And I'm sure that means that multiple Dene leaders, probably including more than one person depicted in this book, thinks he got some major things totally wrong: that's how journalism works.

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