Paying the Land

“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.[1] 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.

[1] For more information on the recording, see


Paying the Land
By Joe Sacco
ISBN: 9781627799034
Metropolitan, 2020
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

This Place: 150 Years Retold

“As I was reading, I thought about the idea of an apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it. Indigenous writers have pointed out that, as Indigenous people, we all live in a post-apocalyptic world. The world as we knew it ended the moment colonialism started to creep across these lands.” —Alicia Elliot

This Place: 150 Years Retold is a remarkable graphic compilation featuring eleven Indigenous writers and eight illustrators presenting Canadian history over the last 150 years from a myriad of perspectives, including Métis, Inuit, Dene, Cree, Anishinaabe, and Mi’kmaq, with a forward by author Alicia Elliott (Haudenosaunee). Several non-fiction stories are centered on historical incidents and people that, which, while not well-known outside of the families or tribes, have been passed down through generations and deserve to be more widely recognized. Others are fictitious accounts of great relevance to Indigenous society. Each of the stories are headed by timelines to place them in historical context, have an introduction by the creators, and follows a straightforward time continuum ending with the hard-hitting, bleak, and futuristic tale exploring the contemporary dangers of climate change, racism, and injustice. In “kitaskînaw 2350,” by Chelsea Vowel and Tara Audibert, their protagonist Wâpanacâhkos, a fifteen-year old Cree woman, is sent back three centuries to learn what happened to the people in our contemporary era.

The anthology opens with “Annie of Red River” by Katherena Vermette and Scott B. Henderson. Annie Bannatyne, a Métis woman from Red River (which is now Winnipeg, MB) in 1868, undertakes a dramatic and painful lesson for a journalist who insulted Métis women in the newspapers. Bold colors accentuate the strong facial and non-verbal gestures that illuminate the story of this proud and effective crusader. “Tilted Ground” by Sonny Assu, Kyle Charles and Scott A. Ford illuminates a time when the celebrations, language, and other elements of the Indigenous culture was deemed illegal by the federal government. When William “Billy” Assu became chief of the village of Wiw?qaýi he worked alongside and cooperated with the oppressors but, at the same time, secretly hosted the banned ceremonies for the community. His story and regalia are held at the Museum of Man in Ottawa. Illustrated in bright prime colors, the story vividly celebrates the wisdom, passion and fortitude of Billy. Jen Storm’s “Red Clouds,” is an account of the windigo, told through a woman’s perspective, a victim of the windigo, based on historical and oral records of the shaman Jack Fiddler and Wahsakapeequay herself. “There are stories that tell of red clouds appearing over an approaching windigo, as a warning or omen” (54). Natasha Donovan’s earthy visuals flow through the telling of the story of the evil windigo and the encroaching changes made upon the First Nations of Northern Ontario by the federal laws enforced by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Donovan efficaciously illustrates the next entry as well. “Peggy,” written by David A. Robertson, is the story of a sniper in WWI. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow was one of only thirty-eight Canadians to receive a military medal with two bars. His heroism at the front was not originally appreciated once he returned to Canada but with perseverance, he became a well-respected chief in 1921 and continued the ongoing battle against racism and discrimination. Natasha Donovan is also responsible for the striking and highly relevant cover of the anthology.

“Rosie,” by Rachel and Sean Qitsualik-Tinsley, introduces the reader to the feud between the Inuit and the Canadian government’s tyrannical measures in the early twentieth century. It is also an introduction to a broader understanding of Inuit shamanism. The cool tones of the blues and greens are effectively punctuated by splashes of vivid reds. “Nimkii,” by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Ryan Howe, and Jen Storm, explores the ongoing devastation evoked by the Sixties Scoop of the late 1950s and 1960s. “As residential schools close, thousands of Indigenous children are removed from their families and placed in non-Indigenous foster or adoption homes. Many children are placed outside of Canada” (138). This tale, told through dark and bold illustrations peppered with softer child-like drawings, celebrates the strong bonds between Nimkii, a mother, and her son. Richard Van Camp and Scott B. Henderson’s “Like a Razor Slash” moves the timeline into the 1970s and the environmental battles between Dene Chief Frank T’Seleie and the Canadian government eventually defeating the government plan to build a pipeline from the Beaufort Sea to Alberta. The evocative illustrations and color scheme reflect our contemporary situation in Alberta. Richard Van Camp quotes David J. Parker’s “Submission to the Joint Review Panel investigating the proposed McKenzie Valley Pipeline” in the preface to the story to put his title in context. “Some dismissed the impact of a pipeline, saying it would be like a thread stretched across a football field. Those close to the land said the impact would be more like a razor slash across the Mona Lisa” (168). Brandon Mitchell’s and Tara Audibert’s “Migwite’tmeg: We Remember It” relates another example of governmental interference and sanctions on First Nations in the story of the 1980s salmon raids in Mi’gmaq territory. Bold neon-like colors and stark backgrounds highlight the community and the conflict effectively and with precision. In “Warrior Nation” by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair and Andrew Lodwick, Raven, a residential school survivor, and her son Washashk travel across the country to join the stand off against the RCMP in the Quebec community of Kanehsatà:ke. The Oka conflict is possibly one of the most familiar of the clashes for sovereignty and Indigenous rights within Canada and beyond our borders and this story furthers the understanding of the components and people involved in the conflicts.

This is truly a compelling collection of stories revealing the power of storytelling both visually and textually in offering a window to understanding Indigenous history in the last 150 years as told by Indigenous people. For those who wish to investigate further, there are several pages of end notes to the well-researched stories as well as several pages of recommended readings in the “Select Bibliography”. Highly recommended for those interested in Canadian history, Indigenous rights and enduring racial tensions on both sides of the border. Highly recommended for North American high schools, public, and academic libraries.

This Place: 150 Years Retold
By Alicia Elliott
Art by Natasha Donovan
ISBN: 9781553797586
Highwater Press, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 15+

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Métis, Inuit, Dene, Cree, Anishinaabe, Mi’kmaq
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, Haudenosaunee Creator, Métis Creator