The Dene have lived in the vast Mackenzie River Valley since time immemorial, by their account. To the Dene, the land owns them, not the other way around, and it is central to their livelihood and very way of being. But the subarctic Canadian Northwest Territories are home to valuable resources, including oil, gas, and diamonds. With mining came jobs and investment, but also road-building, pipelines, and toxic waste, which scarred the landscape, and alcohol, drugs, and debt, which deformed a way of life.
In Paying the Land, Joe Sacco travels the frozen North to reveal a people in conflict over the costs and benefits of development. The mining boom is only the latest assault on indigenous culture: Sacco recounts the shattering impact of a residential school system that aimed to “remove the Indian from the child”; the destructive process that drove the Dene from the bush into settlements and turned them into wage laborers; the government land claims stacked against the Dene Nation; and their uphill efforts to revive a wounded culture.
Against a vast and gorgeous landscape that dwarfs all human scale, Paying the Land lends an ear to trappers and chiefs, activists and priests, to tell a sweeping story about money, dependency, loss, and culture—recounted in stunning visual detail by one of the greatest cartoonists alive.
"A startling depiction of an Indigenous people struggling to remain true to their traditions . . . Partly oral history and partly a compassionate portrait, the narrative recounts the [Dene] people’s transition from a culture that respected and lived off the land to one faced with challenges that threaten to erase the fundamentals of their culture. Sacco portrays the Dene’s old ways with his extraordinary illustrations, vividly showing how they once lived . . . Part of what makes Sacco’s portrayal so masterful is his proficiency as a journalist; he uses the real words of Dene citizens to tell their stories, augmenting them with his extraordinary artistic insight."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"[T]his is a vitally important story about an underrepresented people . . . For generations, the Dene lived in tight-knit communities with a strong sense of tradition tying them to one another and the land. In this exhaustive study of the Dene Nation’s history and current way of life, Sacco (Footnotes in Gaza) asks, 'Why do the indigenous people of the Northwest Territories seem adrift, unmoored from the culture that once anchored them?' A partial answer is provided via firsthand accounts of the Canadian government’s deeply shameful attempt to assimilate Dene children by forcing them to attend schools where they experienced emotional and physical abuse, and the legacy of abuse and addiction attributed to this experience. Sacco also explores the ramifications of oil, gas, and diamond mining in the area, which some Dene embrace as an economic opportunity, and others find exploitative and ecologically disastrous."—Library Journal (starred review)
"Eisner-winner Sacco travels to northern Canada to talk with members of the Dene, a First Nations group located largely in the Northwest Territories, in this arresting exploration of a community on the brink. Fracking is the hotly contested issue at hand; it brings money and jobs, but devastates the environment. Sacco delves deeper than the current debate, exploring the long, fraught relationship between the Dene, the Canadian government, and the land. The powerful middle chapters collect first-person stories of the atrocity haunting Sacco’s investigation: the mass forced separation of aboriginal children from their families to be 're-educated.' Separating young people from their communities, Sacco argues, robbed generations of identity and direction, as Sacco learns from the testimonies of Dene people from all walks of life, from tribal leaders and elders who grew up in close-knit nomadic tribes to a young man hunting his first caribou . . . He wisely withdraws his presence to the background, allowing the Dene and other locals he interviews to take the spotlight, interspersing close-ups of faces with images of the breathtaking northern vistas. Sacco again proves himself a master of comics journalism."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)