By Taté Walker, Mniconjou Lakota
Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota) is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. She is a freelance journalist who lives in the Colorado Springs area. She can be reached on Twitter at @MissusTWalker or www.jtatewalker.com.
Speaking as a former middle school teacher, it isn’t easy feeding bloodless and battleless history lessons to the masses. Even more difficult is featuring published histories from marginalized perspectives – either they don’t exist, or people don’t care to know them.
So when I read “Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet,” from the Graphic History Project, my first thought was, “This will totally appeal to young people.”
Title: Working on the Water, Fighting for the Land: Indigenous Labour on Burrard Inlet
Authors: Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton
Illustrator: Tania Willard (Secwepmec Nation)
To be Published: by Between the Lines in 2016 (part of Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles)
More information: To see the full preview, visit the Graphic History Collective website.
Art has a way of connecting us to ideas, or, in this case, a time in Indigenous (and Canadian) history recognized or known by few. Writer and illustrator Tania Willard (Secwepemc Nation) uses relief print panels in captivating black-and-white to draw out a nonfiction narrative of economic survival. The comic was co-written by Robin Folvik and Sean Carleton with the Graphic History Collective.
On her blog, Willard says, “… [T]his work will tell the story of Indigenous [longshoring] on Burrard Inlet and how early labour organizing by Indigenous people [helped] to support the wider land struggle against colonization and capitalism.”
A quick geography lesson from the comic: Burrard Inlet connects the traditional territories of xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaʔ (Tsleil-Waututh) Coast Salish First Nations in what is today known as Vancouver, British Columbia. It’s in area perfect for hunting and fishing, and easy-access resource exploitation.
The narrative itself is straightforward, and easy enough for elementary-aged readers to comprehend: Colonizers came in, territory was acquired, resources were identified, brief working relationships were achieved until guaranteed unfairness ensued, Indigenous people protested, protests were squashed by excessive force and bullying, and a legacy of underemployment began.
For context, it’s important to note the labour environment in modern times. Quick summary: It’s not good.
According to the Canadian Labour Program, workforce disparities for Aboriginal people include an over-representation in low-skilled occupations, and under-representation in managerial and professional occupations, according to the latest statistics. At 18 percent, the national unemployment rate for Aboriginals is three times the rate for non-Aboriginals; comparatively, the employment rate is just 48 percent among Aboriginals. If that weren’t bad enough, the wage gap continues to widen between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal full-time workers; the latest numbers show Aboriginals make 73 percent of their non-Aboriginal counterparts’ incomes ($37,356 to $51,505). Dismal.
The government attributes this gap to lower educational attainment for Aboriginal people. Using that logic, the government itself is then responsible. Consider the history of oppression faced by Canada’s indigenous populations, in particular the education system dedicated to first wiping out Aboriginal children in boarding schools and then inadequately teaching (or simply refusing to teach) Aboriginal history, accomplishment, and impact on modern-day Canada in school curricula. In this light, one sees clearly the role and connection the government and its policies played in the contemporary Aboriginal workforce outlook.
But Willard’s comic flows matter-of-factly through basic labour moments from the mid-1800s through the 1920s and early 1930s and stops there, although the last panel notes how longshoremen continue to work the inlet today. The bulk of the narrative discusses how Indigenous workers unionized themselves to varying degrees of success. Unsurprisingly, when the highly skilled Indigenous longshoremen went on strike in 1918 to earn 5 cents an hour more, non-Indigenous workers swept in and took those jobs, which left the tribal people of the inlet in desperate situations.
I appreciate that the text isn’t pumped full of stylized drama. It’s very, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In an era where much of what non-indigenous people know about us is less fact, and more fantasy, the no-nonsense style of writing rings with authenticity, and is a breath of fresh air from shape shifters or mutants.
Reading as an outsider, the story Willard is telling feels unfinished, and perhaps that’s purposeful. However, the title (‘Fighting for the Land’) leads readers to believe there will be some sort of reclamation (or attempts, anyway) by the longshoremen or tribal communities. Outside of “processing ancient timbers,” there isn’t really anything land-based happening.
Regardless, the lino-cut drawings are the star of this show, and I went back over the panels again and again, because previously missed camouflaged images and symbols kept swimming to the surface with each pass. With Indigenous history – and ours being a history traditionally told through stories, not written words – perhaps this is the point.
A quote from Willard made during an unrelated interview 10 years ago addresses this: “I draw comics because I like them. I think it’s a really intimate thing, creating comics; I like the solitude and the hours of drawing. And, again, I think they are a better way sometimes to tell a story than a long boring essay or position paper. In reality, especially in the Native community and other poverty-affected communities, who is going to sit down and read a whole academic revision of history? It’s great and needs to be out there, but it also needs to be represented in popular mediums and popular culture.”
The comic is part of an anthology, Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories About Working-Class Struggles (to be published in 2016), which will focus on Canadian labour history.