“What do you mean by paying the land, Fredrick?”
“You give it something, he says. ‘A bullet, perhaps, water, tobacco, or tea. It’s like visiting someone. You bring the land a gift’” (p. 50).
As much as I have appreciated Joe Sacco’s graphic journalism in the past, I opened Paying the Land in trepidation that the western view would once again supplant the reality of the Canadian Northwest Territories and its inhabitants. I gave a heavy sigh of relief when I realized that the first and last chapters completed a circle, an important element in both Indigenous communities and in the world of traditional storytelling. The circle made me feel that I was safe with the maestro. “You find yourself in the circle” introduces the reader to the land, the people, and the traditional lifestyle of the Dene. “The circle is closed” leaves the reader in the contemporary world of the land and people but now the lifestyle is more conflict than tradition.
Between these two chapters Sacco, through the words of the people of the communities visited in his research, tells the complex and ongoing story of how the Dene became so conflicted and affected by colonialism, sovereignty, cultural genocide, commodification, appropriation, and contemporary resource extraction practices. Sacco successfully manages his massive undertaking of illustrating the intricacies of the area, from the first arrival of European settlers, the fur trade, and specifically the Canadian government’s tactics of treating the Indigenous people through the years while sustaining his initial focus on climate change.
The land has always been central to the Dene but the resource extraction of gas, oil, and diamonds, while creating jobs, also created havoc with the building of pipelines, roads, and toxic waste, which scarred the landscape and damaged its inhabitants with the escalating issues of debt, drugs, and alcohol. For non-residents to understand the situation more fully, Sacco delved into the background of colonialism with the ongoing residue of the destructive residential school system and the progression from living on the land to becoming wage earners living in settlements. “Dear Reader,” Sacco clarifies, in tiny narration rectangles at the onset of the chapter entitled “A savage who can read,” “something has been circling above these stories, in fact, haunting this entire project. Perhaps I should have mentioned it before…” (p. 121).
While Canadians may be more aware of this recent history, readers from elsewhere need to address the disastrous effects of residential schools and the several generations of children removed by the Canadian government to attend institutions with the express purpose of “removing the Indian from the child.” When these children finally return to the north and their families from these schools, their self-worth, their language, and their culture have been, for the most part, eradicated. What remains is intergenerational trauma with the severing of connections to community, family, and the land. Sacco also clarifies the historic and contemporary background of treaty negotiations and land claims that add to the complexity of the situation of the Indigenous north. He also engages the reader with the intricacy and balance of a multiplicity of viewpoints within the various Indigenous communities. Some of the residents are inclined to encourage resource extraction as beneficial for their communities for wide-ranging reasons while others oppose it because they favor the return to a more traditional land-based lifestyle. Still others are inclined to marry the two polar perspectives as the most positive outcome for the people, balancing the two by maintaining many of the elements of the traditional lifestyle while also engaging in the mining and construction in their local area. Self-determination is a positive force and one that Sacco respects and offers without judgement.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also figures in the balanced journaling of the narrative. Sacco credits the opportunities to relate and record the stories the Indigenous population shared with the Commission as a valuable aid in his own research. All is not gloom in the north, and Sacco demonstrates this continuous resilience through various community celebrations and numerous bursts of humour. He displays his fascination with traditional games and contests and, by enlightening his readership with his personal commentary, he continually educates non Indigenous readers without being condescending.
Sacco visited the sprawling Mackenzie River Valley in March 2015 for research material for a magazine article and returned in March 2016 when he realized the larger scope of the story. He interviewed approximately 35 residents of Tulita, Norman Wells, Sambaa K’e (Trout Lake), Fort Simpson, Fort Liard and Yellowknife. Among those featured are former Paul Andrew, Premier Stephen Kakfwi and the late Father Rene Fumoleau, among others. A big part of the four-year process in creating the book was taking the time to ensure that his quotes were reviewed and approved by the informants before the publication of the book. This was my second pleasant surprise in reading the book.
Father Rene Fumoleau, who is featured in the book, was a good friend of mine. We had shared many stories and glasses of wine when he visited Edmonton and had several surreal experiences when traveling together to storytelling festivals and library-related conferences. He was also told his stories as part of a storytelling project that I was involved in. Reading the brief chapter featuring my old friend relaxed me even more as I could hear him through the pages. I have also visited several of the locations depicted in Paying the Land and felt that Sacco was giving the land and the people quality service and voice.
Sacco’s realistic black and white illustrations, heavily hatched with lines, effectively and economically complement the journalism and storytelling. His landscapes are breathtaking and evocative, bringing an immediate awareness of the vastness of the area and the modifications that have occurred over time. He establishes a robust sense of place of the land and of the small communities and larger cities. His depictions of the characters, including himself, are likewise superb. The faces are promptly distinguishable, the body language telling, and the dogs and machinery equally realistically rendered. The panels are organic, following the flow of the storytelling. Many of the backgrounds are simple and uncomplicated but those that are not are filled with meticulous details that add immense depth to the vignettes. Sacco pays homage to the land and the people by portraying them and their environment as accurately as possible. The only character who is portrayed in a slightly cartoony manner is Sacco himself. Readers familiar with his work, however, would easily recognize his caricature. This is an outstanding documentary in print.
This book is highly recommended for high school students and adult readers in and outside of Canada. There is much to digest and reread here.
 For more information on the recording, see https://www.storytellers-conteurs.ca/en/featured-storytellers/Rene-Fumoleau.html
Paying the Land
By Joe Sacco
Publisher Age Rating: Adult
Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Canadian Dene
Related to…: Book to Comic