Kwakwaka’wakw author, artist & activist Gord Hill is the 2024 Lehan Lecturer with UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts. His free public talk runs from 5-6:30pm Thursday, March 7 in room A110 of UVic’s Turpin building (now rescheduled from the original Feb 27 date).
An artist, author, political activist & member of the Kwakwaka’wakw nation, Hill is the author of The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book, The Anti-Capitalist Resistance Comic Book and The Antifa Comic Book and has been involved in Indigenous peoples’ and anti-globalization movements since 1990.
The annual Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture Series features a distinguished guest presenting ideas on how the arts are a catalyst for change in advancing the understanding and goals of various social justice topics.
And that’s certainly how it worked for Gord Hill, who combined a passion for social justice with his artistic interests to create an accessible learning tool rooted in his own cultural traditions.
“The arts have always been a highly respected craft on the West Coast,” he explains. “Artists were tasked with recreating ancestors in a graphic form — like carvings and paintings in the big houses — so in our culture, there’s a lot of visual reaffirmation of our ancestors in everyday life. For me as an artist, graphic novels are a way of maintaining our history and making it accessible to people.”
From comics to ’zines
Like many of us, Hill says he read comics as a kid — mostly Marvel, but also surprisingly Conan (“I actually thought he was like a native, because he was a nomadic Sumerian warrior with long black hair who was always engaging with different people”) — but it was his teenage involvement in political social movements and the ‘zine culture of the ’90s that really sparked his interest in becoming a comic artist and author himself.
“As an artist, I always wanted to draw comics . . . but I’m not really into making up fictional characters and developing their background and all that,” he explains. “So when I was working with the native youth movement in the late ’90s, I decided I was going to try doing some historical comics — because the story is already kind of written, right? I just had to reinterpret it for a graphic format.”
Given his own activity, some of Hill’s early work focused on crises of the day. “I found that even with our most recent acts of resistance — like the 1990 Oka crisis — there wasn’t really that much information out there, as this was before the Internet was really widespread. So one of the first comics I did was an eight-page comic about Oka, and then I did one about the 1995 Ts’Peten [Gustafsen Lake] standoff in the interior of BC.”
Learning from history
Before long he had created a number of these short educational comics, and a friend suggested doing a larger work looking at 500 years of Indigenous resistance — which, an assist from friend and Art History & Visual Studies professor Alan Antliff, was then published by Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press.
Three books later, Hill’s work is just as relevant today as when he started. “Graphic novels are really accessible, especially today in our era of memes and videos on Facebook and TikTok,” he says.
He also feels historically-based comic books can be a great teaching tool.
“History can help you understand your present situation: you can learn from what resistance movements have done in the past and apply that to today,” he says.
“Historically, we’re taught that Indigenous peoples were just helpless victims while European colonizers conquered the land and committed genocide. But if you actually look into it, there’s a really strong history of resistance — there are areas where it took Europeans centuries to conquer Indigenous peoples — and I think that’s really inspiring.”
“Resistance movements can inspire and empower us, show us that we’re not helpless victims,” he continues. “It can contribute to a fighting spirit to know the oppressor isn’t omnipotent, that they have actually suffered defeat. I hope my work contributes to resistance movements today, so they’re able to learn from the history of resistance, which is an important part of maintaining a culture of resistance.”