2018-04-12 / Front Page

Bringswhite - Bush Fellow Remembers Roots


Supervising volunteers cleaning up graffiti in his neighborhood Erik Bringswhite focuses on lessons he was taught about his culture as well as his own negative life experiences as a gang member to keep himself focused on the positive. Courtesy photo. Supervising volunteers cleaning up graffiti in his neighborhood Erik Bringswhite focuses on lessons he was taught about his culture as well as his own negative life experiences as a gang member to keep himself focused on the positive. Courtesy photo. PORCUPINE, S.D. – Erik Bringswhite is a big man with big ideas who’s accomplished big goals: he’s a long-time husband and father; he’s completed his basic college education; he operates a safe house on the Pine Ridge Reservation; he works with “at risk” Native kids off the reservation in Pennington County; and he’s reached out to the Rapid City community for years - at his own expense - to support Native youth and create an environment for building cultural bridges in an area known nationwide for its racial issues.

Any combination of these successful endeavors, and certainly all of them, are reason for a man to be proud of what he’s achieved. Learning that the Bush Foundation just added a “fellowship” to this long list of successes is pretty much a layer of icing on the cake.

But Bringswhite is as humble as he is large. So, he’s taking the newfound attention his latest triumph is garnering him with a level head. One of the best ways for him to do that is to remember his roots. Not just those that lead to the traditional values of his Lakota people, but the ones that trace back to the 20 years he spent on big-city streets as a gang member and the time he spent in jail.

“I remember the two rewards of that life,” Bringswhite advises ironically. “Incarceration and death.”

Attracted by comradery and acceptance he wasn’t getting from his family or community, Bringswhite jumped into the gang lifestyle wholeheartedly, expecting to stay there for the rest of his life.

“Until one day I found myself in a prison cell in Colorado, still filled with anger,” Bringswhite recalls. “I was lonesome. I was isolated. Nobody knew I existed. I started to pray. And I thought in 20 years, when it’s my turn to be a grandfather, what am I gonna pass on? And, so, that day I embraced my culture.”

And Bringswhite never looked back.

When I first met this mountain of a man in 2010, he was living in Rapid City as a full-time student and founder of “Touch The Clouds” – a non-profit organization with the mission of assisting Native American youth to become healthy, positive, productive individuals who to become healthy, positive, productive individuals who could walk in 2 worlds with the culture their ancestors passed on to them while looking forward to new ways for bringing each of them to the center of the Sacred Circle.

Everything Bringswhite has done over the intervening years has been related to that mission, directly or indirectly.

To start, he received his bachelor’s degree in social work via Oglala Lakota College and Capella University.

Then with the help of the late Paul Iron Cloud, former director of the Oglala Sioux Housing Authority, Bringswhite was able to open a safe house on the Pine Ridge Reservation where he and his wife currently care for 3 very young children who were in need of a protected and healthy environment. The couple’s youngest daughter also lives with them.

“We keep children who are direct casualties of addiction, incarceration and violence,” he explains. “We’ve serviced 36 children over the past 2 years. Our motto is ‘How Can We Be a Good Relative Today?’ though we basically fill the traditional Lakota role of a father and a mother to these children.”

And since last fall he’s been a part of the Pennington County Juvenile and Young Adult Diversion Program.

“I work with a group of great young men to identify and implement solutions,” Bringswhite notes, “that will assist them in not only staying out of incarceration settings, but will help them to be positive, healthy and productive members of society.”

Although the group currently meets only once each week, Bringswhite hopes to increase that number. Meanwhile, he’s on call for members’ whenever he’s needed.

“Mentorship doesn’t happen in an hour-and-a-half one time per week,” he observes. “Real, true mentorship is sometimes at the oddest and strangest hours. And when they call, you come.”

What’s most important to Bringswhite, however, is the community engagement he’s able to facilitate within Rapid City.

“It’s integral,” he comments. “I’d give everything up just to maintain my bonds with the youth and the community.”

Bringswhite had never heard of the Bush Foundation when it was first suggested that he apply for a fellowship. And he was reluctant to get involved in the process.

“Mr. Bush’s vision was to build leaders in the community,” Bringswhite remarks. “And to support leaders. And someone saw me as a leader. But I can’t take any credit for just doing what a man is supposed to do.”

He was also hesitant to get involved because of a traditional belief he holds.

“As a man, and as a Native man, in particular, we shouldn’t ask for help for something until we’ve proved that we’re willing to get out and do it ourselves,” Bringswhite explains.

But that’s just Bringswhite’s point. He is the living proof of what can be accomplished by a Native American who focuses his or her mind on the positives that they can achieve, who receives support from their family and community and is then afforded the opportunity to move into a leadership role that will allow them to rise to their full potential.

Jim Kent can be reached at

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