Joe Sacco, a Portland, Oregon-based graphic artist and author, has spent his career since the early ’90s mixing journalism with comic illustrations and sharing stories about the forgotten and dispossessed.

His latest book, his 11th, titled ‘Paying the Land,’ focuses on the traditional lives of the Dene, their history as inhabitants of the Northwest Territories, their experience under Canadian colonial expansion and government control and as bystanders of corporate resource extraction.

Joe Sacco’s latest graphic novel explores the history of the Dene in the Mackenzie Valley.

“I think a lot of my books are about dispossession, whether it be about refugees and internally displaced people or people who have lost something,” said Sacco. “So I think (Paying the Land) relates pretty directly.”

Paying the Land stems from trips he made into the NWT in March 2015 and in the same month in 2016.

He had initially planned to do news articles for the France-based magazine Vingt et Un on climate change in the North. However, that soon transitioned into an interest in the impacts among Indigenous people after first contact in North America.

“When I was in the NWT, I began seeing a bigger story about colonialism and that it wasn’t just about resource extraction or just about Indigenous people. You can’t tell the story (about the Dene experience) without looking at the bigger colonial story.

“I found myself sucked into the story and the magazine piece served as a foundational piece for the book.”

Based on about 30 to 35 interviews with residents of Tulita, Norman Wells, Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake),Fort Simpson, Fort Liard and Yellowknife, Sacco spent four years putting together more than 250 pages of a black-and-white graphic novel explaining how the Dene have lived under Canadian colonialism.

“Typically, I don’t do many sketches in the field but I spend time talking and taking photos for reference,” he explained regarding his approach. “The main thing is doing the interviews and by structure of the story, things sort of fall into place in an organic way.”

Joe Sacco, author of Paying the Land, explores the lives of the Dene in the Mackenzie Valley and touches on their experience during Canadian colonial expansion.
photo courtesy of Henry Holt and Company/ Metropolitan Books

Familiar long-time Northerners with political associations and histories with Northern Indigenous reality are depicted in the book. Among those featured are former Paul Andrew, Premier Stephen Kakfwi, the late Father Rene Fumoleau, Patrick Scott, Frank T’seleie, Richard Nerysoo, William Greenland, and Harry Deneron, among others.

Sacco said that much of the content will be familiar to Northern readers and longtime residents, however he wanted to bring a fresh presentation of the NWT. He was particularly interested in the 1975 Berger Inquiry into the then-proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline.

“If you’re in the NWT, in some ways there is nothing new and everyone knows what is going on,” he said. “But maybe the difference is that as an outsider, and what (I’ve) come up with and what I’ve found fascinating – while it is old hat to locals –I’m able to look at it with fresh eyes.”

In fact, Sacco said the response was interesting as the book was first published in France earlier this year.

“When I was interviewed by people in France, I found that they didn’t know anything about Canada, let alone how Indigenous people in NWT have lived,” he said.

In that sense, Sacco hopes he is able to teach something new to a broader audience and perhaps shed light on misconceptions that exist about Canada in general.

“I think in the U.S. there is often the thought that you in Canada ‘got in right’ in some ways – and there is probably some truth to that,” he said. “But there is also some darker history and that what was accomplished violently here was accomplished less violently there. The end result is still, in many cases, cultural dislocation and dispossession.”

One of his main takeaways from the project is that the legacies of colonialism are ongoing and don’t end with government reports and payouts, he said.

“It was a pleasure to be up there and I learned a helluva lot about colonialism,” he said. “One of the main things I picked up is that colonialism doesn’t end with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that says there was cultural genocide and settles it with a payout and lawsuit. It happens over a long, long period and it continues to unfold.”

Shauna Morgan, who accompanied Sacco on his research trips and facilitated some of his contacts said that the author showed much diligence in telling northern stories properly.

(The book)has been a long time in the making and I think it is super exciting the is now available,” she said. “We had had discussions way back before 2015 and at that time he was interested as a journalist and as a graphic novellist about stories involving Indigenous groups around the world.”

Morgan said at that time he had not been as focused on the North until she pointed out that the the NWT has stories to tell about resource extraction companies operating on Indigenous land and that it would be worth exploring. 

“What I like about him is that he is sensitive to the fact that as an outsider and as a southerner, he was coming up here and telling other peoples stories and that he has been acknowledging that he is not from these communities,” she said. “He has been wanting to be sensitive and respectful toward the work and with the people being interviewed in terms of trying to understand their comfort levels.” 

A big part of the process had been taking the time to ensure with the interview sources that his material of quotes were reviewed by the subjects before the book was published, she added.



Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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