Sacco brings his award-winning comics journalism approach to Northern Canada in Paying the Land (Metropolitan, July.), about the history and culture of the Dene, a First Nations people embroiled in conflict over oil fracking.
You’ve traveled to war zones for prior books, such as Palestine and Safe Area Goražde—how did this compare?
I wanted to get away from war zones, but what I found out is that you can’t get away from conflict. Let’s just say whatever I knew about Canadian history, the consequences of colonialism really hit me. There’s the violence that involves a gun, and there’s a violence that’s involved in the residential schooling. It was real education.
What was the story that you originally expected to tell, and how did that change?
I wanted to do something about climate change and resource extraction. Resources are extracted on the peripheries, and that generally means they affect indigenous people. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as I thought. You cannot assume that all indigenous people are against resource extraction. I began to understand the conflicts within the community, and their conflicts with the government over land claims. It began to snowball and become a much bigger book than I thought it was going to be.
What was your biggest challenge?
Learning how to get into the frame of mind of letting elders speak, listening attentively, letting people talk as much as they want to talk. That’s different from the interrogative way I normally do my questions—question-answer question-answer question-answer. I learned to accommodate myself to the rhythms of life there.
What was the most difficult part to write and draw?
The chapter about the residential schools. It was disquieting to see what happened, as a matter of policy, to indigenous children. It didn’t just happen in Canada. It happened in the United States, in Australia, in a lot of colonized places. It was a very intentional attempt to break the culture by keeping people from speaking their languages, by Christianizing them, by forcing them down a path that had nothing to do with their culture. Some of the kids returned to their homes and could no longer speak with their grandparents, if not their parents. That’s a sure way of breaking culture and fracturing a society, atomizing it.
What surprised you most about the Dene?
I was struck by their relationship to the land. It made me rethink how I think of land, and how Westerners think of land in general. We think of land in terms of property, something to be measured and parceled and sold. Then you absorb the lesson of the Dene, which is that the land owns us.