500 Years of Resistance is a comic book depicting a Native American view of colonial history. It seemed somewhat presumptuous of me to review this book, and for this week’s National Aboriginal Day, no less. I am not Native American; by some benchmarks, I am not even North American, having moved to Canada less than 10 years ago. And yet. I am from India, the country Columbus set out to discover before he washed up on the American continent, a country intimately acquainted with European colonialism.
It seems to me that the most prevalent approach today to a colonial past is to assert that colonialism was a mix of good and bad (mostly bad). But dwelling on that past is deemed morbid and pointless; what really matters, in this view, is a calculated embrace of capitalism so as to beat the erstwhile colonizers at their own game. But another perspective sees the struggle between colonizer and colonized as an ongoing resistance — colonialism, rather than being eradicated, is deemed to have simply taken on new shapes. Gord Hill belongs to this school of thought. In his introduction, Hill states that the mainstream depiction of Indigenous people as (mostly) passive victims of European colonization now resigned to (or even willing accomplices of) the activities of the settler-state is a deliberate falsehood. The 60 pages of extensively-researched graphics that follow depict his world-view and his reasoning.
500 Years of Resistance takes as its scope the Americas, North and South, and roughly follows the chronological order of colonial expansion. The book is divided into four parts with the self-explanatory titles Invasion, Resistance, Assimilation and Renewed Resistance. Invasion focuses on the methods adopted by European settlers to acquire Native land, while the section on Resistance takes up specific episodes such as the Inca Insurgency and the Seminole Wars, and includes details such as the deliberate distribution of smallpox-infected blankets by the British forces to facilitate quicker genocide of the Native people. Interestingly, the last section (Renewed Resistance) describes the kinship between Native Americans and other peoples of the world, citing the civil rights movement and the Vietnam anti-war movement as examples of a global struggle against oppression.
Hill concludes with the mention of recent armed conflicts between Natives and the state (such as the Six Nations standoff with the Ontario police in 2006), effectively making his point: for some, the resistance never ended. Even if you don’t agree with Hill’s approach, you’ll understand his sense of outrage after reading this book. The black-and-white artwork brings home the weight of accumulated injustices with an intensity few other formats could match.
Is any form of reconciliation possible (or even desirable) to a people whose histories and identities have been forcibly recast for centuries? 500 Years emphasizes the actualities of the past and our interpretation of the present, but gives no vision for the future. The ultimate aim of any resistance movement is presumably to bring about social and political change that obviates the need for its existence. Hill, however, presents resistance as an end in itself — a problematic conclusion, given that this work is targeted at the youth. Fortunately, the book includes four-and-a-half pages of recommended readings, with titles that suggest a broader vision.
Consider yourselves warned: this book is a warrior’s celebration of armed resistance, and it’s not for the faint-hearted. The violence of colonialism and the Indigenous people’s bloody resistance is laid out in detail, from the European settlers raping local women and chopping off the hands and noses of those who failed to supply them with enough gold, to the severed heads of the crew members of an American ship attacked by Nuu-Chah-Nulth warriors. Hill writes that the comic book format “…uses minimal text with graphic art to tell the story. This format is useful in reaching children, youth, and adults…” This book is definitely not for children, but it should be read by everyone else.—Niranjana Iyer