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On Contact: Paying the land with comics journalist Joe Sacco

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to comics journalist Joe Sacco about his new book, ‘Paying the Land’. In the book Sacco travels to the frozen Canadian Northwest Territories to reveal the Dene people in conflict over the costs and benefits of the resource extraction industry and development.

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.

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CH: Welcome to “On Contact.” Today we discuss the book “Paying the Land” with its author Joe Sacco.

JS: I look at my old interviews, like the transcripts, and I see that how often I’ve interrupted people. And when you’re talking with a Dene elder, you really just let them talk. You might ask a question, and they might start talking about something, and you think, “This doesn’t really relate to my question,” but they will get around to answering your question. So, in a way, it was like a real lesson in patience and in learning that there are other ways to listen and other ways to sort of deal with someone than just sort of constantly interjecting and sort of corralling them into the space you need them to go. 

CH: In the fall of 1995, I joined a convoy of French UN peacekeepers traveling from the besieged city of Sarajevo in Bosnia to the besieged city of Gorazde. In the convoy, I met another journalist, Joe Sacco, who drew book-length comics. I knew little about the world of comics, but I knew something about the world of journalism. I watched him interviewing Gorazde and instantly realized he was immensely skilled as a reporter. We would later work together in a story from Gaza for “Harper’s Magazine” and from Camden, New Jersey, in a piece for “The Nation” magazine as well as publish a book together called “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” Joe invented the genre of comics journalism, the marriage of rigorous reporting with meticulous drawing that delivers a visceral, visual, and emotional punch. His books, including “Palestine,” “Safe Area Gorazde,” “Footnotes in Gaza,” “The Fixer,” and “The Great War” have become classics, repeatedly elevating journalism into art. His latest book is “Paying the Land,” a poignant and moving portrayal of the plight of the Dene people of the remote Canadian Northwest Territories, their struggles against cultural genocide and the social, economic, and environmental destruction caused by the extraction industries. In the book, he chronicles the battle by the Dene people to protect their identity and their communities. The competing ethic of communal existence is pitted against the ruthlessness and violence of capitalism and the commodification of a land that to the Dene is not only a living being, but sacred. Joe is unsparing in his reporting, documenting the evils imported into the Dene culture from the outside that include alcoholism, drug use, domestic and sexual violence, and suicide. But by the end of the book, the reader discovers that this is not only a book about the long efforts to extinguish indigenous communities and indigenous culture, but it is a book about us, about our demonic lust for profit at the cost of human life and ultimately the Earth itself. Joining me from his home in Portland, Oregon, to discuss “Paying the Land” is Joe Sacco. So, Joe, what is it that drew you to this story, which you’ve spent 4 years of your life documenting and telling?

JS: Well, I wanted to do a book about climate change, but I wanted to do something that was a little more sort of oblique. And I thought I’d do it about resource extraction, and where are resources extracted? It’s always at the peripheries, and that usually involves indigenous people. And I thought I would go up and just talk to people about that particular subject. I did a magazine piece for a French magazine called “XXI,” and it didn’t seem enough. I felt like when I was up there, I was learning a lot more, that it wasn’t just about resource extraction, but that had to be seen in the context of colonialism. And I thought it was worth going up again and working on a book-length project.

CH: I think what you do extremely well in the book is show the trauma, the generational trauma that began with colonization but continues up to the present and how that trauma is passed down, and you—it’s a non-linear book, so you will go all the way back to the first European and, of course, eventually Canadian colonizers. You have long sections on the residential schools, even the boarding schools where these indigenous children are literally kidnapped by the government, by the RCMP. But talk about that, because that seems to be a constant theme throughout the book from the moment of contact between the indigenous communities and the European colonizers.

JS: That’s right. Basically, the Northwest Territories was of really little interest to the settlers because it wasn’t agricultural land. It wasn’t viable agricultural land. It only became of interest to the Dominion when oil and gold was discovered on the land. So you have to control the people. You have to control the land. You have to control the people. So what they ended up doing is taking children off the land and putting them into residential schools. And I think the very specific purpose, and this was outlined by the first Prime Minister of Canada, was to break the culture of the native peoples to separate the indigenous from the land and break their culture and turn them into some version of white people. And, of course, this plays out in very dramatic and traumatic ways. I mean, of course, you’ve taken children away from their parents, away from their communities, away from the way they think about the world, and you’re imposing something else upon them. You’re taking away their language. In fact, you’re beating them if they speak their own languages. You’re teaching them English, you’re Christianizing them, and you’re basically—as one guy told me—you’re turning them into numbers. They weren’t really even referring to them by their names. So you’re cutting them off from everything they are as a Dene person. When these people eventually go back to their communities, they might not even be able to speak to their grandparents and, in some cases, not even to their parents. They no longer know their ways of living and being. They no longer know how to live on the land. And so they’ve lost that connection. And that definitely worked into favor of Canada, because then what you have—you don’t have a strong people that understands itself and understands its connection to the land. You have a broken people. I mean, the attempt was to break the people and to basically—to end their indigeneity, to assimilate them. And that, of course, gets—

CH: And this went on from 1850—1850 to1990, is that correct?

JS: Absolutely, yes, and—

CH: And I think you talk about 150,000 children.

JS: Indigenous children in Canada. And the Northwest Territories has the greatest amount of survivors. And of course, how does that play out. In the end, it plays out with people—broken people medicating themselves. We saw this together in South Dakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

CH: Right.

JS: People self-medicating, high rates of alcoholism, as you mentioned, domestic abuse, and all these things that were basically imposed upon them in the residential schools. They were internalizing all those things. And not only were they victims, but then they visit that sort of trauma on their children and on their children’s children. I mean, this sort of colonialism sort of spools out over time. It doesn’t end when the residential schools end. It’s an ongoing process, and who knows how long it’s going to take to resolve itself, if it ever does.

CH: We should be clear that within the residential schools, there was tremendous amounts of violence and sexual and physical abuse. And, of course, these people, as you mentioned, when they get back to the communities—there’s a moment in the book where people are talking about coming back from the residential schools and because they’re so disconnected from their own culture, their elders don’t even want to take them out to hunt or to trap or to do the traditional activities that these previously largely nomadic indigenous communities carried out, because they don’t have any knowledge. They’re just a burden.

JS: That’s right. They become a liability. They become sort of a—you know, you’re trying to turn people into—indigenous people into white people. And then, basically, you have some version of a white person back in the community, which obviously led to a lot of conflict and even tension and trauma there, too, because people came back to their communities and often felt some form of rejection by their communities. So it took a long time to get back into their ways of thinking, and some people struggled and got back into their ways, relearned their languages, but many others were kind of lost.

CH: Well, the rates of suicide are very high. I think, if I remember, what is it—4 times the national average, or something? And alcoholism is—

JS: Yeah, something like that, maybe even more than that.

CH: is an epidemic. I want to talk about the trauma of technology, because that’s also a theme that runs through your book. So the extraction industry has come in, and I think you did an amazing job of how conflicted indigenous communities are, because, you know, they live, of course, in deep poverty. And the extraction industries offer, at the very least, a job. And if they can control or get a certain amount of the royalties, even a certain amount of income, and that is a major theme in the book. Maybe you can explain it, but also—I don’t know if you would agree—is in and of itself another form of trauma.

JS: I think that’s true. I mean, I think a lot of the indigenous communities are very conflicted about how to approach resource extraction, because now what’s happened—they used to survive off the land. They used to trap furs and bring them in and sell them, and they had their own economies and their own ways of living. Once they were driven off the land and pulled into communities, mainly through the schooling system, they no longer do that. Now they’ve been turned into wage laborers. And what are the only jobs up there? I mean, they’re resource extraction jobs, unless you can get sort of a government job or else you live off on the dole. So they—a lot of people in the northern communities, they sort of see that these are the jobs that are available. It’s resource extraction. So there’s a very conflicted relationship with it, a very ambivalent relationship with it, and you saw a lot of tension even within communities about that particular thing. So there’s that trauma within communities because they have different ways of thinking about these things, but also it’s what the resource extraction industry brings in. They bring in roads, which, you know, they have their benefits, but through roads, you can also bring in alcohol, drugs--all kinds of things like that. Prices go up. Certain goods come in that people aren’t used to. Cell phones come in, and—

CH: You also set up man camps--

JS: Pardon me?

CH: which then prey on wom—girls. Man camps, camps of male workers.

JS: Yeah, I mean—

CH: who then prey on the women and girls.

JS: Well, there’s all kinds of things that are brought in, imported in, that obviously are really problematic for the communities. So it’s sort of like this negotiation with how much are you gonna negotiate with the devil of the resource extraction industry.

CH: Great. When we come back—when we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Joe Sacco about his book “Paying the Land.”

[break]

CH: Welcome back. We continue our conversation with Joe Sacco about his book “Paying the Land.” One of the things you talk about in the book are the—you know, as you bring in these outside extraction industries. And, of course, the imposition of the Canadian government itself is it creates disputes within indigenous communities. And of course, that classic ability to divide those communities, very much a part of westward expansion in the United States. You and I visited the Bighorn battle. And, of course, it was the Crows who were aiding Custer and the cavalry. But talk about those divisions, because that’s an important part of your book.

JS: Well, as I mentioned, if people are wage laborers and those are the only wages, there are some people who look at resource extraction as the way out of poverty. And see the resource extraction community as—they’re suspicious of it on many levels, but also the resource extraction community will bring in gifts--they’ll help subsidize schools, give hockey equipment, they will keep the winter roads clear. So they bring in certain goods. And other people are not—are a little more testy with the resource extraction industry. They oppose it, because they’re worried about things like fracking, because the chemicals are being shot down into the land, and then they come back up when the oil and natural gas comes up. And people are obviously worried about what those chemicals are, what they mean to the land, and what they’re doing. I mean, the extraction industry is putting down all kinds of cut lines through the land. It’s putting down roads. It’s putting down these pads where the well pads are, and having a great effect on the land, too. So within a community, you’re gonna find these different—different forces often in conflict with each other.

CH: You do note that the fracking industry, because of the drop in global oil prices is in hiatus. How has that kind of reversal affected these communities?

JS: Well, it’s a “boom or bust” sort of situation, and right now, it’s a bust. With oil and natural gas prices really low, it means the jobs have dried up. So people are tied to those jobs that can go and come based on market forces that they have absolutely no control over. So you can imagine. It’s like suddenly all these people are out of work. Now they have to go on the dole. So to tie yourself to resource extraction is tying yourself to something that you have absolutely no control over. And I think a lot of people recognize that, also.

CH: You interview—I think his name is Dolphus, in the book.

JS: Dolphus Jumbo.

CH: Yeah, talk a little bit about him. I mean, he often, I found, is very wise. But just as—the book is filled with amazing characters, but let’s just have you talk about him.

JS: Yeah, this is someone I really liked quite a bit. He’s a chief at Trout Lake. And he went through the same residential school chaos , as he calls it, as everyone else did. And he had problems with alcoholism and eventually he was able to sort of break himself away from that. But he very much recognizes how alcoholism has damaged his people, himself, and he recognizes that as a leader, he has to sort of heal himself in order to serve his people. He sees all the connections between residential schools and how people act. And I mean, I think, in the Dene community, people are very—they think in terms of consensus. They make decisions together. And people have a lot of autonomy. They can speak up. But in residential schools, it was very hierarchical, of course, and people were told, you know, “You only speak when you’re called upon.” He recognizes—he recognizes all this sort of thing and sees the effect it’s had on his people, that they don’t take the initiatives that they used to take. They don’t involve themselves in decision-making as they used to take in the traditional—in the traditional way. So there’s a lot of conflicts in his own mind, and he’s sort of, I think almost like a philosopher in this one little community. But there’s no---there’s no asphalt road to Trout Lake. You can only fly in, or you can drive in for about a 2-month period when the winter road is open. And the community goes back and forth about certain things. Now they’ve agreed to build a road, but he’s personally sort of thankful that it’s gonna probably take about 20 years to build a road to the highway, ‘cause that will give his community a lot of time to prepare for what’s gonna come in. You know, he worries about a lot of tourists coming in. I mean, on the one hand, he thinks that’s a way of going forward economically. On the other hand, you know, you want the right kind of people to come in. You don’t want a bunch of people just coming in to their sacred lake, putting down a bunch of boats, and zooming around all over the place. He worries about what technology means. If people aren’t used to the technology-- but they’re not used to the bills, let’s say that, because they’re getting quite used to the technology itself, and they’re getting—they’re losing their connection to the land itself. He says in some cases, they don’t even know how to chop firewood anymore. And he’s one of those people, like many I met there, that are worried about the younger people who have less interest in going on the land. And it’s the land where the Dene have connection to themselves. Not just the land, but they get connection to themselves in the land. So he sees a lot of this. And he was a very great character to sort of show this sort of wide spectrum of what’s happened to the Dene and how they’ve been dealing with it over this period of time.

CH: One of the things that was interesting in the book is that you really said you had to recalibrate the way you carried out interviews. Explain.

JS: That’s absolutely true, yeah. I mean, it really taught me a lot, because I look at my old interviews, like the transcripts, and I see that how often I’ve interrupted people. And when you’re talking with a Dene elder, you really just let them talk. You might ask a question, and they might start talking about something, and you think, “This doesn’t really relate to my question,” but they will get around to answering your question. So, in a way, it was like a real lesson in patience and in learning that there are other ways to listen and other ways to sort of deal with someone than just sort of constantly interjecting and sort of corralling them into the space you need them to go.

CH: So I found your chapter titles fascinating, which, you know, often times look like a treatise from Sartre or something. “You Find Yourself In The Circle,” “We Won’t Let It Control Us,” “Divide and Conquer,” “Dance with the Devil.” But you begin with “You Find Yourself In The Circle,” and you end with “The Circle Is Closed.” And you end with this traditional game. Talk about that circle. Obviously, for you, especially the way you open the book, which was in a re-creation of the traditional life that doesn’t exist anymore and then the closure.

JS: Right. Well, the beginning starts with Paul Andrew, who is talking about living life in the bush when he was a young boy. And he talks about how everyone sort of just knew their place. Everyone understood they had a role, and they were a valuable part of their family, semi-nomadic family group. And he said he realized how much he felt himself in a circle, in a community of people—his family—and how he had a role and he knew what to do sort of instinctively. You saw what needed to be done and you did it. There was a great self-worth in that. In the very end of the book, I have a younger person now who grew up sort of as an urban Dene person, Eugene Bollinger, and he talks about trying to get back on to the land. And the first time—and learning sort of to be on the land again, like some experience he never really had, but he knew his ancestors had, and how he hunted a caribou. And as he was working on the caribou, skinning it, he felt this connection with his ancestors and with future generations. And it’s a different kind of circle. And he used the exact same language of finding himself in a circle--that the circle, his circle was closed. He felt himself within a community that extended into the past and into the future. As far as the hand games go, that was very interesting. That was also something—as a Westerner, you go and you see the hand games. And it’s a game—it looks like a guessing game to a Westerner, to me, where a token’s in a hand. A number of people have one token in one of their hands, and there’s someone on the other team who is deciding which hand these tokens might be in. And to a Westerner, you realize this is just a matter of chance. It’s a matter of probability how long this person is gonna take to guess the tokens. But then if you see it from the Dene point of view—and there was one case where one guy just—he—he—his token could not be guessed, it seemed. He had it in one hand or the other, but the guy on the other team just couldn’t guess it, and it just went on and on and on. And suddenly, you realize, you know, you gotta think about this differently. As a Westerner, I come in thinking about probabilities and certainties. As a Dene person, they think of it as a psychological game, something that really—there’s something else going on. And that’s something, you know, as a Westerner, I just want to—I felt really humbled by that. You know, we’re so into progress, science, reason--all those things that we sort of hold so dearly. But there are other ways of thinking of things, spiritual ways of thinking of things. And that’s something, you know, that as a Westerner, I think it’s important to consider, also.

CH: There’s a moment towards the end of the book, where you go down into a mine and you write, “I will leave here with many unanswered questions about my indigenous hosts, but right now, standing hundreds of feet underground after listening to an earful about the technological wonders of the remediation, my biggest query is about my race, about us.” And I think at one point you write about how—you know, what is it that, you know, “What is the aftermath of this technology but arsenic?” if I remember the word right. But talk about that moment at—

JS: Yeah. Sure. I mean, this was the gold mine. It’s called the Giant Mine in Yellowknife. It’s closed down now. It’s like one of those sites with incredible, incredible toxic wasteland. This toxic dust that’s used in the process of separating gold from its ore has been put down these mine shafts--I mean, more than a quarter of a million tons of this. This stuff is poisonous in its smallest amount. It’s really poisonous. Now, the Dene say they’re “paying the land” when they go to the land. Before they do anything, they acknowledge that the land is an actual presence, that they are a presence on the land. And now they are going to give the land a gift before they do anything. That’s why they say “paying the land.” You pay it before you do anything. And when I was down this Yellow—this mine shaft in Yellowknife full of poison, which is being supposedly contained by Western technology, I realize this is a great metaphor, in a way. Because how do we in the west pay the land? We just take what we want. As I say, we don’t mutter any prayers. We don’t give thanks to the land. We just pay it with arsenic.

CH: Well, and also, if I remember correctly—

JS: You know—

CH: in 100 years, that arsenic won’t be contained. Is that correct?

JS: Well, let’s just say the way it was put to me was that in 100 years, they might have to come up with something else, that this solution was good for 100 years.

CH: Right.

JS: And this is how we think of things, right? This is very short-term. And I think, as a Westerner, you’re really struck by the contrast to an indigenous way of thought, which is we go back far into the past, and we also go far into the future in how we think of ourselves. I mean, I think they—that is a way of approaching the Earth and themselves with real humility.

CH: Well, and that gets to the fundamental point of the relationship to the ecosystem that sustains life and our commodification and ultimately killing it and the Dene’s response that the Earth is sacred. Thanks. That was JoeSacco about his book “Paying the Land.”

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