Eric Bringswhite grew up in the violence of Lakota Homes in Rapid City, South Dakota, and now mentors the youth who live in the same conditions which took him many years to escape. Photo by Richie Richards

Native Sun News Today: Former gang leader mentors Native youth

Former gang leader to become Bush Fellow

By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

RAPID CITY – A former Rapid City gang leader has overcome the odds and has forgiven his past to become a recipient of a Bush Foundation Grant.

Eric Bringswhite, 45, applied for a Bush Foundation Grant and in February was interviewed and accepted as a Bush Fellow. Now in the process of putting together a budget for his grant, Bringswhite hopes to start a Rapid City-based program to help youth in crisis.

At first glance, Bringswhite is an intimidating presence with his large physical frame and tattoos which cover his arms, face and bald head. But once he speaks, a very intelligent and intellectual spirit comes out which dismantles his intimidating looks.

Bringswhite was born in Rapid City.

“My reservation is Lakota Homes (housing community located in North Rapid City),” he said. “I went to high school at Central, but it didn’t really work out. I ended up finishing my GED in an incarceration setting in Minnesota at the age of 18.”

After a few stints locked up, Bringswhite has managed to graduate with three degrees from OLC (Oglala Lakota College). He has two associate degrees in Native American Studies and Chemical Dependency and a bachelor’s degree in Social Work.

As a young Native American boy living in Rapid City, gang activity happened as a matter of circumstance. “We didn’t even know we were a gang. Law enforcement told us we were a gang. When I grew up in the 1980’s, the north side of town was bad,” he said.

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Having grown up in Lakota Homes, Bringswhite was no stranger to shout outs and fistfights. The violence was a common occurrence but he always wanted had a dream to unite his neighborhood.

“You have to think of it in the context of Native youth not really having a place in the city. Not being accepted by so many of the facets,” said Bringswhite. “We didn’t have Boy Scouts. We didn’t have Cub Scouts. We didn’t have them things. We just had each other and our grandmas.”

The youth mentor and advocate says his gang was judge critically and no one outside of the Native American community really examined the choices available for tribal youth back then. It was during an incident at Central High School when he was called to the principal’s office, that Bringswhite claims administrators had encouraged him to drop out of school. So he did at the age of 15.

“I always lived with my grandma. I didn’t have the best relationships with some people in my family. I was blessed to be raised by her. She was born in 1913 and she was raised by her grandma, so she didn’t drink. She didn’t take drugs,” said the former gang leader.

Bringswhite’s grandmother was a fluent Lakota speaker. “The only times I heard her speak English is when she would have to come down to the schools to get me out of trouble,” he said.

The very things which made his life turn to drugs, violence and gang activities were the same factors which pushed him into college and to support the youth of today. “They played a huge part in getting this Bush Fellowship. Those factors haven’t changed. The only thing that’s changed in my life is how I choose to fight,” said Bringswhite.

“There’s 3 main personas out there; Mr. Tough Guy, Mr. Know It All and Mr. Important. Mr. Tough guy can’t be looked at. He’s looking at you mean. He’s always about to erupt. What does that really mean? His defenses are way up. It’s because of trauma and fear,” he shared.

The tattoos on Bringswhite’s face and head are a survival mechanism. It wasn’t until he began to educate himself that he realized his physical appearance was designed to intimidate. Says Bringswhite, “If we look at Mr. Tough Guy in that light, he’s just hurt. Maybe he was a victim of abuse and refuses to be victimized again. It’s trauma-based. It’s the predominant factor that has become the Native youth experience of today; trauma.”


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In May of 2016, Bringswhite started a safe house in Porcupine, SD. “The safe house on the Pine Ridge reservation was a vision of Mr. Paul Iron Cloud. He was the CEO of the Oglala Sioux Housing Authority. They had been contracting with me to do some meth work,” he said or being hired by Iron Cloud to do meth presentations around the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “One day he told me he had this home and he wanted it to be a safe home. He said a lot of kids don’t have a home due to meth.”

The safe house was a challenging endeavor to take on. Often times, the demand was greater than the space provided. “There was way more children that needed a safe place to go that we could accommodate. Part of Mr. Iron Cloud’s concern was having our children raised outside of our reservation. He had a huge heart. He epitomized what it meant to be Lakota,” he said.

Not wanting to give up, the community and Iron Cloud would provide food and funding when needed. “Mr. Iron Cloud would send over groceries when he was alive. We met their needs. We would buy them shoes, clothes. Often, they would come to us with nothing because they are removed from their home in such a hasty manner,” he said of the conditions. Sometimes to make ends meet, his wife would make star quilts to sell or they would go to the “commodity house to get our rations, too.”

So far, Bringswhite’s safe house on the Pine Ridge reservation has served 36 youth. “We don’t go into the details or taint a possible forensic interview that may or may not happen with a child. We accept this child in regardless. We don’t ask questions. A lot of the children have experienced many traumas,” Bringswhite said of those his program has helped.

There are a few Bush Fellows in the area, some of whom encouraged Bringswhite to apply for a grant. “I didn’t know what that means because I never seen a Bush Fellow working in the trenches, working where I work. I didn’t know if I was Bush Fellow material,” he said of the uncertainty.

One of the things he wants his Bush Foundation grant to help the area with, is to meet the problems at the head. He figures resources and funding would be better spent in prevention and being pro-active versus being reactionary and after-the-fact. “I’m no leader, but I want to help raise the next generation of leaders in healthy, ethical, culturally-based, Lakota ways. I was told one time that strong Lakota men and women have strong Lakota children. I see that strength in us every day,” he said of his vision to help Native American youth. “I wrote this application based upon what I thought was an unmet need. Rapid City is great in providing safety nets for youth and families, but there is youth that are that are slipping through that net. My focus was the huge population of relatives who aren’t being caught by the safety net.”

Bringswhite feels his experience of being through the system and being marginalized by community programs and educational opportunities gives him a unique insight. “For whatever reason, Girls Inc. and Ateyapi didn’t work for these kids. All these wonderful programs out there didn’t catch these at-risk kids. They were slipping through. I do the Juvenile Diversion Program on Thursday evenings. The state’s attorney’s office are gracious hosts. They provide a space and food. The 7-15 boys in the program are proof that some are slipping through the safety net.”

Remarkably, the challenges Bringswhite faced when growing up haven’t changed much. He is using this opportunity to help others as a second chance to make up for his own mistakes. The mistakes which sent him to prison.

The pivotal moment in his life came when he was in a federal prison in Colorado. This is when he had an epiphany to change his life around. This is when his higher power gave him direction and compassion.

“My change happened m the SHU (Special Housing Unit) unit in Florence, Colorado. I was incarcerated. I was acquitted and re-indicted in federal court. I was angry. I was the cliché’ of meeting all the judgments that people have of people that are incarcerated,” he said. “I ended up in the SHU unit. During that time, prison wasn’t no different than my neighborhood. When they put me in the hole, I never felt that kind of lonesome for a long time.”

Having lived a life of selfish and reckless behavior, Bringswhite surrounded himself with like-minded people. During those behaviors, he lost his connection to his grandmother’s Lakota teachings. He had forgotten the importance of prayer. “I had quit praying about 10 years before. I didn’t know how to pray. In the hood, we didn’t have inipis (sweat lodge ceremonies) or nobody came and taught us these things.”

“I asked grandfather ‘Is his what it’s all about man? Is this why I struggled so hard? Is this my reward? And some crazy things happened in that cell. (He had a spiritual experience). My anger left. I found this balance, this peace that I never had and always looked for in smoking weed and drinking beer. I found it in the penitentiary hole,” the former gang leader said.

This spiritual awakening came at a critical time. He had this inner peace but still needed to survive for the remainder of his sentence. In this three years, life in prison continued; the stabbings, the beatings, the drugs and the isolation.

It was during this period, that Bringswhite came to understand that the “physical violence, aggression, intimidation was actually only hurting us, my people. I got out of incarceration and signed up for college.” Within one month back on the streets, he was working fulltime while being a full-time student at Oglala Lakota College in Rapid City.

Eric Bringswhite has been sober for 18 years. His sobriety and life change has benefited many in Rapid City and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Accepting the shame of his actions has been part of his healing and he is not one to hide from his past. It’s present on his face every day.

He hopes to work on his Bush Foundation Grant budget and funding needs over the next few weeks.

Contact Native Sun News Today Correspondent Richie Richards at

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