Dene resilience in the life and times of Antoine Mountain

Antoine Mountain’s memoir celebrated Dene resilience and is dedicated to future generations of Dene youth.

Well-known Dene artist, columnist and author in Yellowknife for NorthWords Writers Festival

Antoine Mountain is in Yellowknife for the NorthWords Writers Festival with his published memoir. (Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison)

The life and times of Antoine Mountain, a well-regarded Dene artist, covered a remarkable era of social and political change.

Mountain is also a writer, newspaper columnist, social activist, and PhD candidate at the University of Trent.

He was born on the land "fifty kilometres … north of the Arctic Circle" in the winter of 1949.  He writes in his memoir — From Bear Rock Mountain: The Life and Times of a Dene Residential School Survivor — that he was born into hard times and was fortunate to have survived the days following his birth.

Mountain not only survived but flourished in the face of what he describes in his memoir as the Holocaust of the Indian residential school system, which he and his sister were stolen into as youths.

"A large part of the book is making inferences or connections between the Holocaust and our experience with cultural genocide here in the West — in Canada in particular — and how the church was in collusion with the government," Mountain said.

Mountain writes that he was motivated to dedicate "something of my true Dene self to the children of future generations" so they would know that the residential school system failed to destroy Indigenous people. But he wanted to do that, he wrote, without a blanket condemnation of his times.

Antoine Mountain's memoir recounts his life and times. (TouchWood Editions)

Mountain, a columnist of 15 years with the N.W.T.'s only territorial newspaper News/North, tells his story in a series of vignettes, anecdotes and poetry that carry his reader through decades of public experience.

Among them: the publication of the seminal book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; the American Indian Movement; the creation of the Indian Brotherhood in the N.W.T.; the Berger Inquiry into the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline project; the 60s; and the social impact of Mohammed Ali.

He also shares many more unique experiences: being numbered upon intake into the residential school system (Mountain was number 249); life on the land in the N.W.T.; travels among his "Dineh relatives" in the American Southwest; his writing life; and his training in the visual arts.

Everything is tied together by the themes of Dene identity, survival and resilience.

"I began painting with the idea to encourage the youth to remember themselves as Dene," Mountain said.

"Everything else I've been involved with including the research for my PhD, it's always involved ... the youth. We have a duty to carry on the words and the stories of our elders, of our Dene ancestors. Because everything points to ... our indigenous identity as Dene."

Mountain took part in gala readings Friday evening as part of the NorthWords Writers Festival in Yellowknife.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoon he will join panel discussions in Yellowknife.

Mountain is also expected to return to Yellowknife on June 21 and will sign copies of his memoir at National Indigenous Peoples Day celebrations.

Based on an interview by Loren McGinnis