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Richard Van Camp

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Richard Van Camp on his hope for The Spirit of Denendeh

Richard Van Camp, a Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ writer of the Dene nation from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, is the author of 26 books. His love for comic books began with Issue 13 of Warlord. A Blanket of Butterflies, originally published in 2015, about the experiences of Indigenous and Japanese-Canadian people during the Second World War, now with revised illustrations, is the first book of the graphic novel trilogy series, The Spirit of Denendeh.

What inspired this new edition of The Spirit of Denendeh: A Blanket of Butterflies?
I did have a bit of a mandate. Growing up in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, I was very much a child of the 1980s. But deep inside, I always had this anger and frustration and concern. My personal agenda with A Blanket of Butterflies was to illustrate our 10 Dene laws. I also wanted to honour the Deline prophet [Louis] Ayah. Ayah passed in 1940, and the detonation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened years later, so he never got to see his worst nightmare come true. The uranium from the Port Radium and Rayrock mines in the Northwest Territories was instrumental in the detonation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ayah warned us that we must never help the white people when they come North looking for the black eggs in the earth because they are going to put them in birds that never have to flap their wings and those birds are going to fly to the other side of the world where the sun goes at night when we sleep. They are going to drop two black eggs on people who look just like us and there is going to be a fire so bright it leaves only their shadows and what’s left of their homes. We’re complicit in those detonations because we didn’t listen to our own prophet. I wanted to tell a visually compelling story, but I also wanted to illustrate the legacy [of what happens] when you don’t listen to your own prophets.

What are you hoping young people gain from this book?
I’m 50 years old, and I’m still starving to see Northerners in literature and comic books. And I just hope that The Spirit of Denendeh and this series inspire a whole new generation of writers, storytellers, or artists. I’m proud that this is set in my hometown of Fort Smith, I’m so proud that these characters look like us. I want the world to know how beautiful we are as Northerners and Indigenous people.

A Blanket of Butterflies shows the links between trauma and violence. Why was it important for you to also show healing and redemption?
I’m continuously thinking about what it would take to weaken certain men with sweetness. What would it take to turn an evil, wicked man’s heart? The beauty of The Spirit of Denendeh is you get to follow Benny the Bank knowing it was his granddaughter, as she was dying from cancer, who made him promise to be a good man and turn his life around. This is about a grandfather’s promise to a little girl who isn’t here anymore but who has come back in spirit. That’s a pretty wicked, wounded place to begin a trilogy from.

My mom went to residential schools. She was stolen when she was five, she went to two different residential schools for 12 years. We’re still living in the shadow of those murderous machines. Benny knowingly milked that trauma and made a fortune as a bootlegger and now is starting to understand. These characters [in A Blanket of Butterflies] are descendants of survivors and the many who didn’t make it back. The book is about what you would do if you suddenly saw the full scope of your life and realized you weren’t always this way and it’s never too late to change. Benny is a symbol for everyone who has come up north and stolen, milked, or benefitted from the pain and trauma of residential schools and the culture of extinguishment that the Canadian government carried out against Indigenous people. Maybe a wicked man will read this and turn their life around. That’s my prayer. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

(Credit: William Au Photography)