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A master of “comics journalism,” author and illustrator Joe Sacco takes readers along as witnesses of his epic journey into the lives and culture of the Dene, the group of First Nations who have lived in the sweeping Mackenzie River Valley in Canada’s Northwest Territories “since time immemorial, by their account” and whose culture is imbedded in the land. In contrast to the Euro-western concept of land ownership, the Dene believe that the land owns them.

Sacco’s interviews with trappers, chiefs, social workers, priests, teachers, activists, elders, young adults, government officials, and more are complemented with his exquisite, detailed illustrations of the Dene experience, both past and present. With deep compassion and sensitivity toward his interview subjects, Sacco unveils the horrendous legacy of residential schools founded by the Canadian government and run by the Catholic Church—alcohol and drug abuse, soaring suicide rates, intergenerational trauma, domestic and sexual violence, and a lack of motivation among young men. Portraying numerous viewpoints, Sacco unveils the complex economic and environmental realities of resource extraction and how it has affected the Dene. Though Sacco heard variations on this theme—“we will control resource extraction; it will not control us”—the reality of what he witnessed was much more disturbing and complicated. 

Reflecting on what he learned about the modern Dene experience, Sacco wisely comments that maybe someone “will find the formula that balances the knowledge that has been passed down orally since ‘time immemorial’ with the information that comes in a nanosecond via a computer chip. But, I’m wondering, is there really such a thing as the best of both worlds?”

Worthwhile and enlightening, Paying the Land is also a painful and difficult narrative, especially reading about and seeing illustrated the shameful story of how Christians treated our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and witnessing the ongoing spiritual, physical, and emotional cost of that legacy. (Metropolitan Books)

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