Joe Sacco Finds a People’s Voice in Paying the Land

Stories are important in Joe Sacco’s Paying the Land. The book itself is the story of the First Nation people, the Dené, who live in Western Canada on oil-rich land. With the indigenous people who originally settled the Northwest Territories, Sacco’s book opens by telling us about a free people who live off of the land, hunting, fishing, and trapping. The big thing that stands out in these peoples’ history is the sense of community that exists among them. This is the story of the past generations of these people, told to Sacco by their children and grandchildren. The story starts years ago, firmly planted in traditions of family, community, and heritage. The man who tells Sacco about this history, Paul Andrews, is one of the many Dené men and women whose face and story we encounter in this book. Through Andrews and many other people, we hear the stories that are important to the Dené and we hear about what the Dené have lost over generations in the name of progress, in the name of colonialism, and in the name of capitalism.

We currently live in a time where we are being asked to listen to other people’s stories. I have one set of experiences and you have another set, that is completely different for a variety of reasons. But if there’s anything that we can take away from 2020, it’s that we need to listen to other people and understand their experiences politically, socially, economically, racially, and sexually. Sure, there are people who think their view of the world is THE ONE AND ONLY VIEW OF THE WORLD and that’s the struggle that many of us are fighting both in ourselves and in the people around us. Joe Sacco's brand of journalism is about expanding that view of the world, uncentering it from our myopic world views into a broader and truer picture. He’s gone to war zones to show us a bigger world than most of us know or can imagine. Paying the Land is a quieter book than his other work; there are no bombs being dropped and no one is shooting at their fellow human being. But in a lot of ways, the story of the Dené is one of the cruelest stories that Sacco has told.

Among so many other things that are happening in the world right now, Sacco finds a story that is buried so far beneath the headlines and talk show news that we cannot believe that things like this happen in the world today. Among the many revolutionary movements highlighting the stories of people that we all need to hear, the Dené are a people who have a rich heritage that’s been systematically assaulted over the past 200 years by a Canadian government that wants to exploit the resources that the Dené have, the land that they have lived on for generations. Starting with an actually easy to understand (relatively speaking) struggle over oil rights, fracking, and questions of who has the right to say how those resources are or are not used. As the Dené fight to protect what is theirs, Sacco shows that they are no more united in these questions than we are when it comes to questions of how do we use the land that we own. Some want to continue with fracking but on their own terms; some disavow the practice altogether believing it will set off an ecological disaster; some seek a compromised solution. Their struggle over this is the same as ours when it comes to these debates of what we should do with these natural opportunities that we have.

That in itself could probably fill the whole book with Sacco exploring the voices and politics of those leading these discussions but a focus just on natural resources would barely even touch on the spirit and the cultural attacks these people have faced since the mid-1850s when Canada started the practice of tearing the children away from the indigenous people, in the name of education and of civilization. This is the true history of the Dené, dealing with over 150 years of an attack against their culture and heritage by the European descendants who governed Canada and its territories. The practice of these residential schools, basically boarding schools where these children were taught how not to be Dené, how not to be “savages” as Canada’s first Prime Minister called them. 

The discussion of oil and who has the right to use it leads Sacco into an exploration of the damage that generations have experienced due to this practice of residential schools, which was happening up to just 25 years ago. This isn’t ancient history; many of the people that Sacco talked to experienced the residential schools where they were emotionally and physically abused. This marginalization of who they are has worn on these people over the years and the decades. Their story is of the attempt to eradicate them as a tribe to incorporate them into the “civilized” Canada. The term “colonization” is used by the Dené over and over again and it’s never in a positive way. They were manipulated by a government that had no idea who they were.

Capturing the individuality and the personhood of his subjects, Sacco doesn’t show them as one, monocultural people but as a complicated organism that is trying to redefine themselves after years of these actions of colonizing them. His art and storytelling express these people’s dignity. Their ability to tell of their struggles at these schools, the PTSD and alcoholism that they’ve dealt with, the loss of the connection to their history and traditions shows us people who are struggling to be healed after they’ve been torn apart.

Sacco presents these people as they are. In his interviews and discussions with them, he wants to find out who they are so that we may see them through his cartooning. This is what’s always driven his work, this need to tell the stories of people who we otherwise wouldn’t hear from. By getting them to tell him (and by extension us) their stories, Sacco practices an oral tradition of storytelling, something that the Dené believes that they’ve lost in their own traditions. They lament how they no longer know the stories of their grandparents and great grandparents. But this book captures these current generations’ stories in their own words. Giving a face and a voice to these people, Sacco focuses on their humanity, tracing them through their years and their stories.

Thanks to Sacco, these stories get to live and exist beyond the Northern Territories. This regional history gets to become part of our history, part of our story, no matter where we are from. At many points in this book, the Dené people ponder what they’ve lost because of the ways that they were forced to assimilate into the larger Canadian nation. For as optimistic as the book is that there is a future for the Dené, so much of their past is already forgotten. Paying the Land becomes a fascinating document for the Dené as well as us as it helps document some of the past for them but it’s not nearly enough. No book could fully restore to these people everything that they’ve lost.