Comics aren’t always known for treating serious subjects, but Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book adds a dose of reality to the genre.
Hill, of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, has taken the topics of dispossession, genocide, and the colonization of First Nations in the western hemisphere and, surprisingly, pulled off a rendering in comic book form. The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, published by Arsenal Pulp Press, presents in black-and-white panels the history of the overseas invasion by Europeans and the resistance of Indigenous peoples.
As a medium, comics have many attractions. They engage visually. They give information in bite-sized chunks—ideal for the modern reader’s short attention span. They are fun.
Much of colonial history in the Americas has been sanitized—indeed, current Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper denies colonization ever occurred in Canada. Today, the European invasion of Indigenous territories is often depicted in popular culture as the settlement of an untamed wilderness, a terra nullius, not the homeland of sophisticated civilizations who often fiercely contested Europeans’ claims to their lands.
Hill seeks to visually combat this narrative. “The story of our ancestors’ resistance is minimized, or erased entirely,” he writes in the preface. “This strategy has been used to impose capitalist ideology on people, to pacify them, and to portray their struggle as doomed to failure.”
Knowledge is key to fighting an oppressive system. “When we know and understand this history of oppression, we will be better able to fight the system it created,” he writes.
One way to counter the colonial depiction of history is to “always call things by their right name” as enjoined by Philip Deere, a Muskogee-Creek involved with the American Indian Movement. For instance, Hill places British Columbia within quotation marks, thereby questioning the legitimacy and morality of so-naming unceded First Nations territory. 500 Years of Resistance does this unevenly, though; Hill and Ward Churchill in his introduction use inaccurate designations for Indigenous peoples: “American Indian,” “Mohawk” instead of “Kanienkehaka,” “Huron” instead of “Wyandot.”
500 Years of Resistance roots invasion in the voyage of Genovese navigator Christopher Columbus, who encountered the Taino people in the Caribbean during his infamous 1492 voyage from Europe. It continues through to 1890—describing the Incan Mapuche, Pueblo, Pontiac, Seminole, Apache, Lakota, and Pacific Northwest Indigenous resistances to the colonists—and the fight to maintain their lifeways on their territories—at which point Hill signals the end of military Indigenous resistance. Millions of Original Peoples had been wiped out, many by warfare, but mostly by European-introduced diseases. The treaty process then picked up (a process noticeably absent from much of “BC”), and assimilation took over.
Hill tells of colonizers imposing slave labor, of barbarity, of disease epidemics, of greed for gold, of land theft and of the insinuation and imposition of the capitalist system during settling of the “New World.” To maintain the dispossession of their land and resources, the invaders tried to assimilate the remaining Original Peoples into European ways of being through religious conversion, the Indian Residential School system, and the imposition of the capitalist economic system.
Despite diligent colonial efforts to break them away from their identities—so closely tied to their land—Indigenous peoples persist in struggles for self-determination. Hill captures this graphically—from war on the Pacific Northwest coast, to the ’68 rebellion and Wounded Knee, Oka, Chiapas, Ts’peten, and Aazhoodena. 500 Years of Resistance is a well-drawn comic book that resurrects the history “erased, replaced by the occupying nation.”