The 500 Years of Resistance Comic Book, by First Nations artist and longtime political activist Gord Hill, promises a fresh approach to understanding what has happened to indigenous people in the Americas since 1492. But over the course of 80 illustrated pages that demonstrate an evident depth of research, the book fails to deliver on that promise.
The subject matter is rife with dramatic tension – a cruel history of genocide, cultural erasure, forced relocation, and sexual abuse that has repercussions to this day. But Hill’s retelling is burdened by ideological didacticism and fails to engage the reader with any sustained narrative drive.
A significant part of the problem is the scope of this project. Recounting many of the key moments of the past five centuries in roughly 10,000 words is an obvious challenge – in one case, the chronology leaps forward 85 years from one panel to the next. Too much of the narrative is divided between uncreative, rote description and repetitive, dogmatic references to “the struggle” that could have been lifted from the pages of Socialist Worker. The unfortunate irony is that despite the unconventional graphic format and the incredibly unsettling subject matter, this book is sometimes as dry as the traditional history texts to which the author seeks to provide an alternative.
There are some bright moments, though. The drawings themselves are rich with complex historical and ethnocultural detail. The varied experiences of indigenous peoples from Chile to Alaska are enumerated with an uncommon specificity, paying particular attention to geography and the details of people’s homes, customs, and attire. In this sense, the book provides an antidote to the monolithic stereotype of “the Indian” that continues to hold sway in the North American imagination. The story and pictures also employ occasional flashes of humour, particularly when lampooning white-dominated police and military forces in sections that deal with modern-day native battles. And many lesser-known – and shameful – moments in North American history are brought to light.
But ultimately Hill’s primary audiences, First Nations people and those in allied movements for social justice, would be more effectively engaged and inspired by stronger storycraft than the bland rhetoric that predominates here.