“From the ‘heir to R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman’ a masterful work of comics journalism about indigenous North America, resource extraction, and our debt to the natural world”
Author and illustrator Joe Sacco is known for his insightful graphic novels Footnotes in Gaza, Palestine and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. He is a well-regarded comix-journalist who immerses himself in different locations around the world to interview and understand his subject. He once again does this with this recent graphic novel, as he journeys to the subarctic Northwest Territories of Canada to stay among the First Nations Dené tribes.
Sacco begins the book by having some elders share how they used to “live in the bush” at least part of the year, which means their families were living off the land and were often nomadic. Men and women shared duties, with no gender division because if you were alone in the wild, you needed all the life skills, not just half, to survive. This lifestyle began to change with permanent settlements which resulted in specific gender roles, technology such as snowmobiles replaced the dog sleds, jobs in the industries that were advancing into the area and the enforced residential schools run by the government. Not only was a way of life disappearing, but their surrounding habitat was changing, as oil, gas and diamond mines were wrecking the environment.
There was so much to cover and Sacco ably shows the research and time he poured into this project. He interviews several chiefs (who have different ways of looking at the economy vs environment issue), activists, trappers, oil workers, priests and elders. Different chapters tackled some of the big topics – a changing way of life, land claims, and residential schools.
The chapters on the residential schools really stood out, as they devastated the families and tribes in both Canada and the US. Children were ripped from their cultures and identities and told that they must conform to European-type standards. And while those schools have been thankfully closed for a while now, their insidious legacy lives on. The transfer of dysfunction has now moved from their abusers who were strangers (at the schools) vs bringing home that dysfunction to their families so now abuse exists within families. Parental disengagement is rampant, as is extreme alcoholism. These unhealthy cycles are now being passed down to other generations, years removed from the residential schools. Another excellent graphic novel that touches on this disengagement from their tribes and families is The Outside Circle.
At 272 pages, this a dense piece of non-fiction that will take multiple sittings to finish. In fact, even after finishing it, you will want to go back and look at certain chapters to gain even more information. I would suggest that this text-heavy graphic novel could be used in the classroom as a supplemental resource to trying to fully understand some First Nations issues. As with any complex issue, there are no easy answers and Sacco questions after many interviews “Is there really such a thing as the best of both worlds?”. He admits that because he not Native American there are some issues that simply can not be understood. While he was given much access to the communities, there are certain people, events or situations he could not be privy to.
The black and white art shows a comix vibe, which is meant for mature audiences. Not only are the pages filled with a lot of text to convey information, but the pictures are also detailed and precise. Whenever he includes himself in a scene, he draws himself in an exaggerated caricature style, yet everyone else is drawn accurately and with respect. The beautiful landscapes are lovingly drawn in, so then the juxtaposition of seeing how some areas have been destroyed is heartbreaking.
This was a deep and reflective look at life for the Dené, and Sacco tried to wrap it up with a nugget of hope as young activists there are trying to work on a myriad of issues. I would suggest you pair this well-researched book with other books written by #ownvoices authors to get a nuanced view of the joys and struggles of people who live in that region. Thank you to NetGalley for an advance online copy of this thought-provoking story.