Paying the Land by Joe Sacco
Hardcover – Metropolitan Books – Jul 2020 – 264 pages
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.