Joe Sacco's 'Paying the Land' Reflects Journalistic Nuance in a Way Other Media Does Not
The insights Joe Sacco shares in his comics journalism offer important lessons in understanding and compassion to readers around the world. No less so with his latest work, the excellent Paying the Land.
Paying the Land
If anyone doubts the urgency of the subject matter in Joe Sacco's latest work, his career trajectory ought to underscore its importance.
The pioneer comics journalist, whose classic work on Middle Eastern politics Palestine (1996) revolutionized the genre of war correspondence and the comics medium alike, later set his sights on conflict in the Balkans, producing the gritty but insightful works Safe Area Gorazde (2000) and The Fixer (2003). Footnotes in Gaza (2006) also focused on Middle Eastern history and politics.
In his latest work he turns his gaze from conflict in the Middle East and Balkans to struggles around culture and resource extraction in Canada's Indigenous North. Paying the Land is the result of several years' worth of research and visits to Indigenous Dene communities in Canada's Northwest Territories. It explores both the region's history and the fraught social and political relationships of the present.
That trajectory alone says a lot about the significance of his subject matter. Sacco goes where important conflicts rage, and where the muddy politics of identity exacerbate the conflicting intersections of politics, cultures, and ideologies. We are lucky he ventures into these spaces, because the insights he shares in his books offer important lessons in understanding and compassion to readers around the world. They also offer an important model of good journalism for reporters. It's common for reporters covering struggles in colonized spaces – from the Middle East to North America – to retrench colonial perspectives and attitudes in their work. Sacco (whose 2012 collection Journalism also offers important reflections on the discipline) offers a superb model of how journalism ought to be done in the modern era.
The Lingering Appeal of Colonialism
One of the subtle ways colonialism operates is through a sort of Gramscian technique one might call manufacturing appeal. As someone who grew up in Canada, I realize there's a stark contrast between the way white settler history is taught in schools – all those exciting, dashing heroes battling Nazis and waging Crusades and sailing the seven seas in search of adventure and discovery – and the way Indigenous history is taught. When I was growing up, the latter was often treated as a dry chore – dates of archaeological finds, chronologies mostly centred on treaty-making with settlers, arcane cultural analyses written by – you guessed it – predominantly white anthropologists. In the settler schools I attended, Indigenous history was confined within a historical space of its own, sharply demarcated from the modern era and from the lives of those learning it.
It was a profoundly colonial way of teaching about the vibrant, living cultures on whose lands and resources those settler schools were built. Things are changing now, but slowly. There are incredibly creative, appealing, and authentic methods of Indigenous education, but they have yet to filter widely into the country's school systems and universities.
One of the immediate benefits of a work like Sacco's Paying the Land is that it renders its subject matter deeply engaging for settler audiences that have probably never been exposed to an authentic and compelling version of Indigenous history (especially if they were educated in the past decade or earlier). It's a history that not only disentangles the complex politics of treaty negotiations and land claims, but conveys a sense of the urgency underlying the fraught political present. It's that sense of urgency that's often lacking in settler coverage of Indigenous issues. In the case of the North, the geographic distance alone often renders these relationships distant and alienating to Canada's predominantly southern-based population. But Sacco's compelling graphic history helps bridge those gaps.
Of course, Sacco isn't the only one treading this path; there are other educators rendering Indigenous education in new and creative ways, many of them Indigenous themselves. The work of Chelsea Vowel comes to mind: her superb and lively 2016 book Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada (2016) is directed at settler audiences and ought to be required reading in Canadian schools and universities. In the field of comics, superb collections such as This Place: 150 Years Retold, the Moonshot Indigenous comics collections, and Patti LaBoucane-Benson's award-winning The Outside Circle (2015), about Canada's residential school system and the struggle to overcome the trauma it produced, all come to mind; there are many others.
But Sacco, as a world-renowned journalist and comics author, brings a unique range of insight to his topic, along with a broad international following.
Joe Sacco is a journalist, and one of the exciting elements of his work is the innovative guidance it offers the discipline. More than just a comics artist, Sacco is among an emerging movement of comics reporters whose methodology and techniques are reinventing journalism, for the better.
Placing the Journalist in the Story
One of the techniques Sacco consistently deploys is to open his works by positioning himself clearly within them. Every journalist should – especially when dealing with complex issues of identity – but few do. When I first started working in journalism, I was told I would need the ability to become an expert in a few hours on any given topic I might be assigned. That's ludicrous, of course. No one can. But the façade is maintained by many establishment reporters who present themselves as experts, rather than admitting that they're simply beginner learners themselves (albeit learners with a professional capacity to ask good questions).
In Palestine, the first panel is one of the author arriving in Cairo, surrounded by a chaotic jumble of noisy street vendors and taxis, being forced to consume cup after cup of heavily sugared tea, lost and at sea amid the noise and bustle. It's an entertaining intro, but serves an important methodological function – revealing the constructed nature of the narrative which follows, pieced together by a novice reporter who is learning the issues as he goes. Sacco doesn't hide this process of learning and constructing his narrative, but exposes it in full detail on the page.
Here the visual format of graphic reportage helps, because it enables Sacco to introduce himself to the reader in a more direct and compelling way than prose text might allow. He does so with humility, depicting himself in a humorous and bumbling fashion, which emphasizes the fact he is an outsider, with limited knowledge, entering a new subject area about which he himself hopes to learn as well as educate his readers. By drawing himself into the text, the comics format allows him to convey his positionality the way every reporter should. It helps the reader understand who's telling the story. Far from adopting an authoritative 'expert' tone, Sacco makes clear to the reader that he's learning too.
In Paying the Land, he outlines the early stages of his research process – meeting his guide, studying maps of the area, and even trying to figure out what clothes to wear and what supplies to bring along. That preparatory process is omitted from a lot of print journalism, yet it's important to helping readers follow the ways in which a narrative is constructed. In addition to eschewing that deceptive authoritarian tone that still permeates so much journalism, the reader is guided along the data-gathering process with Sacco.
'Informants' – those people who share the knowledge that fills in the narrative – are the foundational building blocks of any piece of reportage. Yet they also receive short shrift in much contemporary journalism. In Paying the Land, informants are not just dropped into the text of the story. Instead we see the author meeting them, driving up to their yards, and shaking hands.
A similar technique is used in television journalism or documentary films, yet the value of the comics format lies in its ability to present a more unified collage of its complex subjects. In a TV or film documentary, the viewer forms an immediate impression of an informant, usually based on their appearance or manner of speech, filtered through the viewer's biases. But the comics format allows for a more complex introduction to a character. When an informant is given a full page or two-page spread to start telling their story, the reader is able to take in with a single glance more of the complex and intersecting elements that make up that person, all visually presented on the page.
Here they are as a child, and here again as a teenager, and then as a young man – their development rendered in a single series of panels. Here's their family, their parents and grandparents and siblings; here's their more distant ancestors depicted in a panel in the corner, meeting the first settlers in the region. And here's the informant working at his job, and here he is torn between maintaining connection with his elders and feeling the lure of paid work and urban nightclubs. And in the centre of it all, here again is this complex individual, standing in front of his house, meeting the journalist (and his guide) for the first time. Importantly, we hear the informant's voice, floating in text bubbles around the illustrations, narrating and cohering these diverse slivers of identity.
In television or film it takes time to construct such a complex and well-rounded image of an individual; Sacco achieves a similar effect in just a few pages. Of course, it's perhaps not as thorough as the effect that can ultimately be achieved through other media such as film, but its value lies in anchoring this multi-dimensional portrayal of an individual in the reader's head before proceeding with their story. And where a documentary might only be able to present two or three individuals in such depth, Sacco's use of the technique enables him to inject literally dozens of informants in one book.
Of course, our understanding of any individual is always partial, and it is the journalist – Sacco – who determines which aspects of his multi-layered subjects are sketched out on the page. What's included, and what's left out? Here we see the journalist's craft at work, making these decisions – hefty decisions! We must trust the integrity of the journalist's effort to present their subjects in a way that's authentic and respectful. Sacco helps build our trust through the clearly visible effort he deploys in rendering the complex identities of his characters.
It's a matter of respect. Sacco's friend and guide while in the North – Shauna Morgan – accompanied him most places, and he ensures that she is sketched in with him in all the panels. It would have been easy to omit her following her initial introduction, but Sacco faithfully ensures she's there alongside him throughout the book. Gestures like this help build the reader's confidence in Sacco's conscientious effort to offer a complete portrayal of the moments and encounters depicted in the text.
Another benefit of the comics genre for journalism is that it allows a more creative presentation of chronologies. This is especially important in the subject matter Sacco tends to pursue – Palestine, the Balkans, Canada's Indigenous North – since the present is so deeply informed by the past and yet the patterns of that past are part of a living cycle. It's not always so easy to present conflicts over identity in straightforward terms of 'This happened in Year X, followed by this in Year Y, leading to this outcome in Year Z' (even though that's how history is often taught in settler schools). Cultural sovereignty and colonialism are far messier processes.
In Paying the Land, Sacco by and large rejects the use of standard comics panels, which would reinforce a linear chronology. Instead his images appear in more chronologically diverse patterns around a page. By escaping the restrictions of linear chronologies – by moving for instance in circular graphic format around the page – the author is able to depict more insightfully the interrelated nature of history, identity, and present. Patterns emerge in different ways than prose text allows, and crucially it's the reader who's able to form those linkages for themselves by mentally connecting the textual data with visual representations.
The most effective pieces of journalism and documentaries are those where the reporter doesn't have to tell the reader what conclusion to draw, but where they simply present a series of facts and the data speaks for itself, the reader reasoning out conclusions in the space of their own head. We tend to believe things more deeply when we come to the understanding ourselves, rather than when someone tells us what we should think. Graphic journalism is ideal for facilitating that process.
One of the benefits of good journalism is that it helps us understand complex, systemic problems as they manifest at a human level. It's one thing to know the history of treaty negotiations, and the political motives of competing parties in land claims negotiations, but how does all that translate into people's everyday lived experience?
Paying the Land superbly translates the politics and history of the North into real human terms. By chronicling individual after individual, family history after family history in short, lively chapters, Sacco reveals how people's lives have been shaped by economic, historical and political processes. The pattern becomes a familiar one – the cycles of life disrupted by Canadian state agents flying in and grabbing up children to take to mandatory residential schools; the widespread abuse and torture of children in those schools in an effort by the Canadian government to crush their connection to their culture and families; the torment of those who survived into adulthood as they coped with the resulting PTSD through alcohol, drugs, self-harm and other cycles of abuse. The already suffering individuals and communities are then faced with the divide-and-conquer, carrot-and-stick approach of resource extraction corporations, and already damaged communities find themselves at odds over how to respond to these new challenges.
It's one thing to read about this as a broad systemic process, and another to see it personalized in family after family, which is how Sacco presents it. The goal of all good reportage is to personalize history and politics, to read it through the lives of those affected by what's going on. Reporters struggle in a variety of ways to accomplish this in prose journalism, but graphic journalism has an innate advantage. The compelling visual rendition of its subjects and their lives allows the journalist to achieve an intimacy between reader and subject matter that's more difficult to attain in prose. That's not to say that it's easy in graphic journalism either, but the speed with which it can be accomplished is what allows Sacco to introduce such a wide cast of characters and render each of them personally compelling to the reader.
Residential School Trauma
Sacco rightly centralizes the residential school experience in his narrative, underscoring how fundamental it was to the Canadian state's effort to eradicate Indigenous people and culture.
"Dear Reader," he begins the first of several chapters that address this process directly, "Something has been circling above these stories, in fact, haunting this entire project. Perhaps I should have mentioned it before. All I have described thus far are its effects, but now we must look its way. For if the question is 'Why do the Indigenous people of the Northwest Territories seem adrift, unmoored from the culture that once anchored them?' the answer is not simply that a bush people were unprepared for a rapidly changing world. Unmooring the Indigenous people – in fact, erasing the essence of their Indigeneity – was long Canada's official policy."
The policy was carried out through 'residential schools', a model which later influenced South African apartheid policies. It served the dual purpose of forcing some nomadic Indigenous groups to settle more or less permanently near the mandatory schools in which their children were held prisoner, and in which children were subjected to a reign of terror and abuse in an effort to eradicate their Indigeneity; the eradication of Indigenous culture was the other function of these schools. The chapters and panels on the topic are harrowing, as Sacco's informants relate their personal and family histories of the residential school experience. At the sound of planes approaching, some families would flee deep into the bush in order to protect their children from being seized by government agents. Others struggled with the decision, wondering whether an education might be the only way to survive in a changing world.
The children who were apprehended or sent to residential schools were brutalized – beaten, forbidden from speaking their language or behaving in traditional ways. Families were deliberately separated. Sexual abuse was rampant. Thousands of children died or were killed at the schools (like prisons, they were often situated in remote locations where children who ran away would die of exposure). The schools served the state function of beating Indigenous culture out of the children, and destroying them if that was not possible.
Sacco points out the lingering impact of those schools through intergenerational trauma. Survivors grapple with alcoholism, drug abuse, or suicide as they struggled to deal with their trauma without proper support. Many perpetuate the abuse they experienced on others. Rebuilding community and culture through the lingering effects of this trauma is an ongoing process, which informs present political decision-making as much as anything.
"Foreign values were not just suggested to us," says Eugene Boulanger, one of his informants. "They were beaten into us and molested into us and beaten into us some more until our cultures became the very sensitive and fragile and volatile environments that they are."
Willard Hagen, another informant, observes that "The government pulled people out of the bush to put their children in schools, and they graduated from their independence [on] the land into a money-based economy with no jobs."
Sacco makes the interesting observation that some of the nuns who carried out the abusive school policies were victims themselves of the misogynistic patriarchy that pervaded Canadian society at the time (especially Roman Catholic Quebec), and which often shunted off abused and victimized women into the church. Sacco is sensitive to the complex nature of this horrific process and its nuanced history. Nuance is often poorly represented in journalism, but Sacco rightly strives to centre it in his narrative.
Respecting and Reflecting Nuance
In responding to the questions posed by resource extraction companies, there's no simple, uniform answer either. Each individual and family responds to the question – support development schemes or oppose them? – differently, and it's a disservice to the complex reality of the situation that mainstream media continues to universalize Indigenous communities rather than acknowledge their complex and nuanced responses. Nuance is the key here, and by relating personal narratives, by translating social processes down to the individual level, Sacco's comics journalism is able to reflect nuance in a way other media does not. The result is rewarding. Nuance and plurality dominate this narrative, and that's important because it's so often omitted from settler journalist coverage of Indigenous topics.
"Resource extraction companies show up pushing their own agenda," his informant Deneze Nakehk'o tells him. "A lot of environmentalists come…and they're pushing their agenda. Neither perspective is 'really coming from the communities themselves,' he says."
"As we've seen," writes Sacco, "communities are sometimes not agreed between each other or even within themselves as to which path to follow. But even if Indigenous people across the wider Canadian North work together on common ecological goals: "Petro-capitalism in the rest of the world continues to affect climate changes so we are continually fucked," [says Amos Scott, another informant]. "And that pisses me off," [continues Scott]. "Ultimately, our defined system of colonization and governance are not there for us to succeed as land users. They're there for capitalism to succeed…and you can't work in that system."
Nuance also emerges in the form of intergenerational differences in perspective and efforts to combat the prevailing sexism which exists in many communities, which poses a barrier for younger women to assuming leadership roles.
"It's really great to wage war on big oil and big government and whatever, and, yes, these things are a threat to Indigenous ways of being. But we can't do that kind of stuff unless we wage war within ourselves to be better men than we have been," says Boulanger, referring to the sexism of some community leaders, and echoing a sentiment shared by others particularly among the younger generation.
Intergenerational differences also emerge in the setting of goals and political strategies. As elders play such a fundamental role in Indigenous cultures, young people struggle to navigate the difficult line between respecting elders and ensuring their own interests and perspectives are not excessively repressed by the force of tradition. Younger generations want the freedom to dare big – whether that means repeating the mistakes of their parents, or perhaps winning gains their parents were unable to.
"Push us. Guide us a little bit. But don't tell us we can't do that because you told yourself you can't do that," says one of Sacco's informants. "I come from a different generation that is able to see beyond what those limits are, right? And we want to push the boundaries."
Colonialism and Journalism's Complicity
When heavily armed and militarized Royal Canadian Mounted Police forces stormed the Unist'ot'en camp and healing centre in February 2020, deploying terror tactics against peaceful land protectors seeking to prevent the incursion of a Coastal Gaslink Pipeline onto unceded territory of the Wet'suwet'en First Nations in British Columbia, mainstream media coverage was criticized for its colonial bias. According to media watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the majority of opinion pieces, editorials and news coverage slanted against the Indigenous land defenders, omitting crucial information and adopting a "law and order framing" which "depends on applying Canadian law selectively", ignoring laws that reinforce Indigenous rights in favour of laws that protect settler and corporate property interests. This kind of coverage and opining from mainstream media outlets like The Globe and The Star sends a message, FAIR warned, that "Canadian colonialism and the right to violently enforce it are beyond question."
One of the recurring problems with mainstream media coverage is its treatment of political differences within Indigenous communities. When some Indigenous leaders espoused support for the pipeline, some media outlets seized upon the division in Indigenous opinion with what almost sounded like glee. It's a tone that pervades a lot of settler coverage of Indigenous affairs, a sort of exasperated "See? You don't even agree among yourselves about what should be done! So why are you inconveniencing white settlers with your protests when you haven't achieved your own consensus?"
What this reflects is a deeply settler bias to journalism, which denies Indigenous communities the right to a plurality of opinion. The expectation is that an Indigenous community ought to conform to settler expectations by being just that – a monolithic Indigenous community – and any diversity, plurality, or disagreement is treated as both inconvenient and evidence of an inability to engage with settler governments as equals. Diversity and plurality is seen as a virtue reserved for settler democracies, while settlers treat it as an inconvenience when it manifests in Indigenous communities.
It's hypocritical, of course – Indigenous communities have every right to plurality and difference – but the pervasiveness of this attitude reflects the deeply rooted settler lens of Canadian corporate media.
Sacco treads more carefully, offering a model for a more respectful way to conduct journalism within and about community plurality. (I avoid using the word "division" because it implies something negative, and differing opinions and insights can in fact be a very positive thing; in fact that's the very idea behind western democracy.)
Sacco offers a plurality of perspectives: some Indigenous leaders want to embrace resource extraction, from the position that it's the most pragmatic way to benefit their communities in today's world. Others support corporate resource extraction not because they believe in it but because they see dependence on welfare programs as a more dispiriting and demoralizing problem in the North than the problems attendant on resource extraction projects. Some Indigenous organizers oppose resource extraction, and seek a more traditional, land-based way of life. Others seek a hybrid model, one which carefully blends elements of modern capitalism (eco-tourism but not resource extraction, sustainable hunting and trapping) with traditional ways of life. Some community leaders think that if they 'lean in' they can better control resource development; others worry that any collaboration with settler developers is a betrayal of Indigenous futures.
Sacco provides respectful and balanced coverage of all these differing perspectives, and more. He treats plurality as a positive force – a matter of communities self-determining their own future – while acknowledging the tension and difficulties it can generate.
Most importantly, he takes the step which many mainstream journalists do not, which is to draw a connection between the difficult choices of the present and the near genocide which Indigenous communities faced from white settlers in the still recent past. If it were not for the residential school system, the deceptive actions of government agents in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and other culpabilities of white settlers, the choices faced by Indigenous communities in the present would not be nearly as tense, divisive, or loaded.
What Sacco reveals, but mainstream media often obscures, is the complicity of white settlers in the very issues they are covering. CBC – and other settler media agencies -- was established with funds derived from colonialism and played a very real and direct role in processes of colonization until recently. It's still predominantly comprised of white settler reporters, including an elite senior tier of reporters who are well paid and unionized, and whose conditions of work are in stark contrast to many of their precariously employed and underpaid Indigenous journalist colleagues.
This is not to say that settler journalists should not be covering the North, or issues that affect Indigenous peoples (since that encompasses virtually everything). But they should not try to cover stories without acknowledging their complicity and role as white settlers in the stories they cover. In this complex endeavour, Sacco's work offers a superb model of settler journalist accountability.
Sacco rightly turns the reporter's lens around onto his own culture toward the book's end. While touring a "remediated" gold mine – in which 237,000 tons of lethal arsenic dust byproduct is stored in 15 underground chambers, some the size of ten-storey buildings – he realizes that whatever questions he has about Dene culture, "my biggest query is about my race, about us. What is the worldview of a people who mumble no thanks or prayers, who take what they want from the land, and pay it back with arsenic?"
Positionality. Accountability. Recognizing one's complicity in the stories one covers. An effort to provide equitable balance while refusing to fall for the deceptions of objectivity. These are the elements that distinguish good modern journalism from its 20th century predecessors. Unfortunately, it's the older model of white, patriarchal, settler journalism that still prevails in J-schools and corporate media alike, since it serves the political function of upholding structures of white settler power. One of the best ways to contest the status quo is by demonstrating the alternatives, and in Sacco's Paying the Land readers and conscientious journalists alike will find an outstanding example of how good journalism can, and should, be done.
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