I’m a traditional pipe carver, and I have been since I was a young man growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota. This was handed down to me in a strange and cherished way. My grandfather was a known carver by my Lakota community. When he died, my Aunt Ethel handed me his carving tools and a piece of pipestone that had been drawn on. I took my grandfather’s stone, studied it and began to work with one of his files, bringing out the eagle he’d drawn. By the time I was in my early 20s I’d carved many pipes and other small figures, and it became an extremely satisfying part of my life—studying and making carved figures and traditional pipes from my ancestors. Today we see their pipes and effigy figures in reference books and in Great Plains collections.
Not Afraid to Look the White Man in the Face is a pipe that fascinated me from the first moment I saw it. On the prow of the pipe is a small Indian man carved in a sitting position that looks at (faces) the bowl of the pipe, which was carved into a much larger head of a white man facing the small naked Indian figure.
How much courage does it take to sit on the earth with no weapons, looking straight ahead into the eye of the storm with no fear? It is much like counting coup on an enemy in the sense that one only needs to touch the enemy, not take his life. Touching the enemy with your eyes, with your gaze, is the highest capacity of honor, courage and compassion.
More than one unnamed Plains artist carved Not Afraid to Look the White Man in the Face during the time of Manifest Destiny. This era was also known as the Indian War period—a time when the United States government moved west and met my ancestors with their army, their munitions and expansionist determination. The archived collection of President Andrew Jackson, the quintessential leader of “westward expansion,” includes a rendering of Not Afraid to Look the White Man in the Face. Whether or not Jackson was informed of its symbolism, this pipe probably provided encouragement to Indian delegates in their diplomatic encounters with this particular Great White Father, a man renowned for his determined aggression towards the Indian people.
I was inspired by Not Afraid to Look The White Man in the Face because it reminded me that I have nothing to be afraid of; every day is a good day to die. And fearlessness is a way to move through difficult moments and circumstances. I knew that one day I would make my own rendition of this piece.
In collaboration with my partner, Alicia Rencountre-Da Silva, and our work to create art that addresses critical issues and community needs, Not Afraid to Look the White man in the Face became Not Afraid to Look—for racism and colonization are not the only threats to our communities, and injustice is a challenge for all people to overcome. The need to connect to our earth and face whatever the forces are that evoke despair, fear, anger, delusion and denial is universally shared. The piece reminds us of our power to endure and face what seems insurmountable, as my ancestors remind me that we can face even genocide and continue in good ways.
Not Afraid to Look was first installed at the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in 2015. It is on loan there and remains today in the front courtyard, calling out to MOCNA visitors.
The second monument was built just this year on-site at the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Cannonball district. In the summer of 2016 we heard the call for support from the Water Protectors of the Standing Rock Sioux. My people, the Lower Brule Sioux Nation, are part of the Oceti Sakowin, the Seven Council Fires. The people from Standing Rock are my relatives. We have nine grandchildren in South Dakota who depend on the Missouri River. Water is sacred to us as Lakota for many reasons. It is life for all beings who live and breathe upon this earth.
As we witnessed the events becoming more strained, the importance of creating a tribute to the courage of the people became apparent. Working with volunteers, I spent a month of 12- to 14-hour days at the Sacred Stones Camp building the monument. Not Afraid to Look sits on a hill overlooking the Cannonball and Missouri rivers and the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site. As the brutality, violence and force of the Energy Transfer Partners and the State of North Dakota escalated in November and December, the piece was there to both bear witness to the history in the making and to endure the entire story with eyes open. The sculpture witnesses a repeat of history—an effort by those in power to ignore and even destroy my people and disrespect the integrity of the land that sustains all of us and a more powerful force—the people standing together, from many tribes—to defend the sacred.
Not Afraid to Look, from Santa Fe to Standing Rock, will remain a physical reminder to everyone for years to come of what the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and the Water Protectors were willing to do for the people today and for the next seven generations. We, as human beings, have capacities to look past our historical differences and antipathies to come together for what is sacred and what is our right to respect and to protect. As artists, my wife, and I have visions to place Not Afraid to Look in places where we may need to look and to stand for something much greater than the things that have divided us. We believe that art that responds to and reflects and builds community and community voice and its truths is the way forward. We see art in relationship to community as part of the healing of what has gone unsaid and ignored. In the coming time it will be more important than ever to show up as artists and as human beings and be Not Afraid to Look.
Charles Rencountre, a Lakota artist, has worked in sculptural mediums for over 30 years. He has worked on collaborative installations, designed symposiums and worked with communities, including on large-scale monuments and installations. He collaborates with his wife, Alicia Rencountre-Da Silva, on their international developing project, Not Afraid to Look.