Five hundred years of history across a continent may seem like rather dense subject matter for a graphic novel, particularly when that history involves hundreds of actors and a fair amount of arcane legalities like territory disputes and treaties.
But artist and activist Gord Hill was convinced that he could turn the material into something widely accessible, a galvanizing account that would serve to rouse a generation to action. The result is the comic book 500 Years of, a bold, graphic, and gripping Indigenous Resistance account of indigenous struggles, past and present.
Hill is a member of the Coast Salish peoples—an anglicized term, Hill explains, for an indigenous tribal group whose territory includes Canada’s Lower Mainland and South Vancouver Island.
Hill grew up on North Vancouver Island, spending some time on reservations, before he and his mother settled in South Surrey when Hill entered high school. There he took the art classes that formed his only formal art education before he became an apprentice to Native carvers in Alert Bay, a village on Cormorant Island in British Columbia with a large indigenous population.
“The aim is to provide a history of resistance for Native peoples, to show that their ancestors resisted colonization, had many victories, and that this resistance continues to this day.”
“On the coast, there is a strong tradition of carving—mostly red cedar but also yellow cedar, alder, [and] yew,” says Hill, who uses carving knives that are adopted from traditional tools. Though he has made masks, rattles, and plaques, Hill primarily carves cedar boxes with images of thunderbirds, ravens, wolves, sea serpents, bears, and heron. Hill values the boxes as aesthetic objects while also recognizing the income that they bring as essential to his larger political goals.
“I’ve had many jobs,” Hill explains, “as a janitor, dishwasher, and store clerk—but my main occupation is resistance.”
In 1992, Hill first wrote the original text for The, a sprawling account of 500 Years of Resistance organized indigenous efforts against colonization in North America, from the Incas in 16th Century Mexico to the Secwepemc in present-day Canada.
This comprehensive textual history was followed by the illustrated version that Hill is now distributing through progressive publisher Arsenal Pulp Press.
“The comic version I did so as to make this history more accessible to Native youth and people in general, who may have a hard time sitting down with a long article,” Hill says. (The original book also recently was reprinted by California’s PM Press.)
“[The book] starts with the arrival of Columbus in 1492 and progresses through the centuries up until the present day,” Hill says. “The format is mostly two- to three-page stories about a number of different tribes’ resistance against European colonization, including the Inca, Mapuche, Seminole, Lakota, Apache, [and] the Northwest Coast.”
Though the book begins with the earliest European colonists and includes legendary indigenous figures of the 19th Century like Geronimo and Crazy Horse, Hill is quick to emphasize that the indigenous resistance movement is a living one, and 500 Years illustrates a number of key events of the recent past, including the beginnings of the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, the Wounded Knee Incident in South Dakota in 1973, the Oka Crisis in Québec in 1990, and the Ipperwash Crisis and Gustafsen Lake Stand-Off in Canada in 1995.
All of these incidents are told in Hill’s signature style: hard, angular lines; bright, bold colors; and collage effects created with the use of other print media like contemporary newspapers.
“The aim is to provide a history of resistance for Native peoples, to show that their ancestors resisted colonization, had many victories, and that this resistance continues to this day. I hope to accomplish their mental liberation from the colonial coma many are presently in.”
To that end, the book concludes on a note of victory, with the Six Nations land reclamation in Ontario. Members of the Six Nations made public claim to a tract of land in Caledonia, Ontario, an area that was to be developed into a subdivision, and assumed control of the area in 2006. The dispute is unresolved to this day, but all development has ceased, and it appears likely that the Six Nations will eventually be granted legal dominion over the land.
“My main concern is distributing [the book] into Native communities,” Hill says, “which will necessitate foot work on my part, and in this way, it will be a useful organizing tool.
“There is no distribution network that reaches into many Native communities,” he continues. “Plus there are over 600 separate bands spread across the country as well as within urban areas. Virtually all national and regional newspapers are owned by the Aboriginal business elite, and all governance as well as social spaces are controlled by the government. This makes distribution and communications difficult.”
Effective communication is a hallmark of Hill’s activism, whether through print media or YouTube. For the past three years, Hill was involved in the movement to prevent the 2010 Winter Olympics from being held on seized Native land in Vancouver, and as a result, he created the documentary video Resist 2010: 8, posting Reasons to Oppose the 2010 Winter Olympics to the video-sharing site as well as to No2010.com, a website that Hill maintains.
“The Olympics was…a tremendous waste of money that benefited the business and corporate class while the people are stuck with the bill,” Hill says.
Despite Hill’s organization, the Olympics went on as scheduled in February of this year, but Hill feels that the anti-Olympics protest movement was productive nonetheless.
“We organized a successful resistance campaign that focused attention on some of the worst aspects of the industry overall,” he says, “and [we] helped to limit the most negative impacts, such as homelessness and the 2010 police state.
The documentary video was useful in mobilizing resistance and communicating the basic message of our movement.” And that message now extends far beyond Vancouver; No2010.com continues its work, now focused on displacements accompanying the 2012 Olympics in London. Hill’s anti-Olympics campaign, however, sat at odds with the Native band councils, many of which supported the Olympics bid.
“The band councils were established by the federal government under the 1876 Indian Act,” Hill says, “which imposed government control over all Natives in Canada and covered primarily the establishment of reserves, band councils, and membership. It also comprises a separate set of laws for indigenous peoples as in apartheid. Some of these provisions, for example, were used to ban traditional governance and ceremonies.
Today the band councils are the primary forms of state control at the reserve level, and they are replicated in urban areas by state-funded political organizations and service providers, which include housing, employment, and childcare, as well as community centers. The bands upon whose territory Vancouver is now located are highly urbanized, and it was their band councils who collaborated with the government and corporations for the 2010 Olympics.”
By taking on these seemingly insurmountable challenges, Hill is heir to a long tradition of uncompromising indigenous political artists/activists, including, most famously, Leonard Peltier. Hill cites Peltier as an influence and also looks up to Louis Karoniaktajeh Hall, a Mohawk artist and writer who designed the warrior flag.
“His basic concept,” Hill says of Hall, “was to educate the people, inspire them with empowering imagery and writing, and raise their fighting spirit. He helped renew the ‘warrior movement’ among the Mohawks in the early 1970s.”
Hill also admires the work of kindred creators such as Art Wilson, Clifford Harper, Seth Tobbacman, and John Yates, but other influences are closer to home, including Hill’s cousin David Neel, who creates traditional masks that represent contemporary social situations like political injustice and environmental pollution.
“I don’t frequently do art for art’s sake,” Hill says. “I usually have a purpose—it’s for a poster/magazine/event/T-shirt, or it’s something that someone is going to pay me for, so it’s work.”
The practical limitations of effective and efficient activism drive the technical construction of his pieces, and Hill usually works in one color so that mass production is less expensive. He finds that a bolder, simpler black-and-white style is better for propaganda work, but this doesn’t prevent him from recognizing the importance of art in political struggle.
“Art is used to record the people’s history, the story of their ancestors, [and] family lineage,” he says. “It manifests in the daily physical world the supernatural powers that are largely intangible.”