Richard Van Camp, a Tłı̨chǫ writer from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, based ‘Three Feathers’ off an incident in his town. There were three young men who robbed a number of residents of the town, including him. When they were caught, they were sent south to serve two years in prison. In ‘Three Feathers’, a Sentencing Circle sends the boys to spend nine months living on the land with some of the community’s elders. The difference in their experience is profound.
Title: Three Feathers|
Author: Richard Van Camp
Illustrator: Krystal Mateus
Published: Highwater Press (March 2015)
Pages: 48 pages
The comic opens with the boys returning from their time on the land. This beginning sets the tone for a non-linear narrative structure that challenges the reader to piece the story together while also making sense of what is, to most settlers, an alien approach to justice. This echoes our experience of learning about criminal incidents where we are often too quick to make assumptions based on a few snippets of information. The comic charts the events leading to the sentence, the experience of the boys on the land, and its ultimate effect on them. In doing so, it helps us piece together the story of how the boys came to be at odds with their community.
‘Three Feathers’ paints a familiar portrait of the challenges faced by indigenous communities: children without parents, families struggling with addiction, and youth alienated from their traditional culture. But Van Camp, unsurprisingly, never stoops to caricature. His characters are emotionally complex, possessed of agency and sympathetically rendered. He provides a good answer to the question ‘Why does it matter that indigenous people write indigenous characters’? His portrayal of a deaf character, one of the boys sent to the land, is also nuanced. He isn’t reduced to his disability or played for laughs but is allowed to suffer from the same anger, frustration and imperfection as his peers.
The comic is not without its faults. It is not as long as it might be, and as a result we are not given much time to learn about the young men or their community. Similarly, though there are some aesthetic styles that benefit from the use of black and white, this is a comic that would have benefited from colour. Still, the sparse use of text accents the art and puts the environment in the foreground, particularly when the young men are out on the land. Given the moral and spiritual importance of their environment this is a good aesthetic choice.
I don’t want to give away the ending. I will say, however, that I was surprised by it, though it reflected the moral arc of the story as a whole. The tale is one of restorative justice, of the capacity of a community to heal its wounds together instead of discarding people who behave unacceptably. It is understood from the outset that the boys have caused harm partially as a result of the harm they themselves have experienced. Their rehabilitation is not rooted in high-minded moralizing about human nature but in the very personal compassion and willingness to forgive shown by their community.
How radically this differs from our colonial conception of justice! For many Canadians, justice is inseparable from retribution. There is even still a surprising enthusiasm in Canada for capital punishment. The idea that ‘criminals’ could be sent out onto the land to fish and camp with the elderly probably sounds like a vacation to your average settler. Even successful experiments with rehabilitation, like the Kingston prison farm, end up up in the scopes of politicians looking for a soft target.
Activists on the left sometimes like to imagine that they are above this kind of justice. They champion prison abolition and talk gravely about police corruption. But, in practice, I think most radical communities end up practicing a kind of ostracism, seeking to exclude people who transgress against the values of the community past a certain point. I’m not saying we can’t protect our communities from toxic people, privileged jerks who never shut up, or occurrences of sexual violence. But what I do think is that restorative justice looks a lot more ‘protecting our community’ than the ostracism that contributes heavily to activist turnover. That is not a comfortable truth for people whose social circle is a line drawn in the chalk of moral certainty. But uncomfortable truths are a powerful thing in the right hands. All I could think in reading this comic was ‘if only it worked that way for us’, …whoever ‘us’ is.