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Artwork by Antoine Mountain | Photo credit: Irene Suvillaga

A Conversation with Dene Artist Antoine Mountain: Art, Resilience and Healing

Written by
Irene Suvillaga
and
and
September 30, 2022
A Conversation with Dene Artist Antoine Mountain: Art, Resilience and Healing
Artwork by Antoine Mountain | Photo credit: Irene Suvillaga

I came across the possibility of writing this piece by mere chance. As soon as my editor presented me with the chance of interviewing and writing about an Indigenous artist, author and activist I jumped at the opportunity of being able to converse with such a persona amidst his work; his essence. 

My first contact with the Dene artist and author was through his art. As I waited for him, I was guided through one of Comstock-Kaye’s white chambers where many of his paintings were displayed, and a declaration of resistance was immediately presented to me. Against the funeral-home’s walls, Antoine’s paintings offered a stark contrast of vivid colours and life. His lively strokes conveyed a cry for freedom through the portraits of historical figures and natural landscapes that if looked closely enough, animals are hidden in plain sight. His paintings seem to speak to me loud and clear: We still walk this Earth, we still tread this land, we are not going anywhere. 

His artistic process, as he describes it to me, was birthed from a survival instinct during his time living in a residential school. 

“You have to go through a time of trying to consider, how is it best to possibly survive certain situations, in this case, being taken at an early age to a residential school… It is a matter of putting your foot down at an early age to set down, let's say, the track for the future.”

His art, in itself, is a statement of defiance and a grounding source to his identity. His art, he later mentions, comes from an internal guiding force that takes over him. 

 “[My art] is about making a statement. One of my main objectives is to remember the ancestors.” 

A retaliation against centuries of oppression and assimilation was visible to me through an unspoken courage displayed through a lionhearted choice of colour, a sudden yet deliberate brush stroke. A reminder to current generations of their roots, and the power that stories, people and the land hold. 

His fighting spirit however, is notable beyond his art.  From Bear Back Mountain: The life and times of a Dene residential school survivor is Antoine Mountain’s memoir. A story that describes his journey from being a victim of the residential school system to an accomplished artist, activist and writer, a process which involved fighting personal demons, most of which stemmed from colonial policies and practices inflicted upon him and his people. It is a story of reconquering one’s identity and regaining one’s freedom. 

As he described to me the inspiration and process behind both his art and writing, Mountain alluded to his second book which will be out in November. During this part of the conversation, he spoke to me of freedom being one of the muses behind his next novel. 

“In order for things to change, the last person has to be convinced. But this is the way to go. This is the reason why revolutionaries are never satisfied in their lifetime, because they don't understand the idea of paradigms that it's going to take a while for this to happen. But in the meanwhile, you're kind of representing yourself.” 

He continues by saying, “in order to undertake any kind of endeavour, like yourself, for instance, or in the long run towards work towards something like freedom, you have to have one essential quality already within you, that you can work upon. That is courage, you need to have that in order to put your stuff forward on your own behalf. So you're already in practice, by the time you see it happening to somebody else around you. And if you have reasons that say in the esteem of your colleagues to the point that you become an authority on something so much better, because you can explain it to someone that's working towards it, and not really knowing the work of why they want to be free.”

Currently undertaking his PhD in Indigenous Studies at Trent, Antoine Mountain continues his journey as a writer, artist and activist. His fight continues even inside the classroom. 

“Whenever Trent University talks to me about something like teleology or values or anything like that, ethics, I have to remind them that we have been there before as Indigenous people. In fact it is woven into our way of life, we call it our traditions. That is, you do not keep something around if it is not going to be useful for you if your goal is to survive.”

Truth and Reconciliation Day holds an important message to the world: truth must come before reconciliation. As we commemorate this day, we acknowledge the past and present colonial legacies and the intergenerational trauma that has been inflicted upon Indigenous people across Canada. As we strive for truth, reconciliation and decolonization we must continue to educate ourselves in order to question and fight the systems of oppression that remain in place. 

“They didn’t succeed, you know. But in any kind of an official attempt at changing people’s psyche, there’s alway a follow up from the authorities to try to keep the situation as is as possible. In this case, a group of my people, Dene from the north, went all the way to Rome to seek an apology. And the pope agreed to come over and do that. But there was no recognition for all or even mention of the missing and murdered children, which is close to or beyond cultural genocide.” 

He later continues,

“In the case of something like reconciliation to do with this book, the way I look at it is that it is not my job to be pointing a finger at somebody else and say ‘that person owes me something’. I don't even know who that person is, I don't know what their problems are or what their situation is. What right do I have to accuse of something they are not guilty of, maybe they weren’t even there at the time. But it is my right to know what it is I am asking for. If I am going to ask you for something, I have to be able to make you understand what it is I am after right? Not just to get it… and if what I am asking for involves something like reconciliation about my culture, that means I have to know what I am talking about, I have to know my language, I have to know something about my culture. Otherwise I am just asking for money, you know? There has to be a sense of responsibility there, and that works on both sides. On the Canadian-citizen side it is a position of responsibility to know the history of the country they claim to be part of. If you are going to be a Canadian you need to know Canadian history.”

During his time in Peterborough Mountain has held book signings and art exhibitions of which will continue to take place. September 30th is his last book signing-event at Comstock-Kaye Life Celebration Center. Learn more about Mountain on his website here.

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