Ernest Whiteman (Strong Old Man) was artist, teacher, advocate, friend

Ernie Whiteman at Dream of Wild Health, where he was the Cultural Director for 12 years. (Photo courtesy Missy Whiteman.)

By Diane Wilson

Ernie Whiteman (Tei’eihi Beh’eih/Strong Old Man) was a man of many talents who will be remembered as an artist, teacher, advocate, changemaker, truthteller, and good friend, whose kindness made each person feel welcome and cared for. Ernie (born on February 10, 1947) made his journey back to the spirit world on December 13, 2019.

For the past 12 years, Ernie had served as the Cultural Director at Dream of Wild Health, beginning each day with his enthusiastic greeting to youth and staff, “Good Native American morning!” His words were a gentle reminder to the youth: always be proud of who you are. As an elder, Ernie was deeply committed to working with Native youth, offering guidance and wisdom through stories.

“Ernie was like a grandpa, one I never had,” said former program participant, Miiskogihmiiwan Poupart-Chapman. “He impacted a lot of youth by teaching us how to live a good life.”

Born and raised on the Hinono’ei (Northern Arapaho) reservation in Wyoming, Ernie learned traditional cultural teachings from elders and family, lessons that have helped his people survive generations of trauma. By sharing these teachings, he ensured that indigenous culture, values and history would be passed to the next generation. “He was telling our story through his stories,” said Missy Whiteman, Ernie’s daughter and collaborator. “Carrying on his work is healing on his behalf.”

Drawing from his own struggles with trauma and addiction, Ernie grew into an elder of deep integrity, a man who walked his talk. His life experience gave him great compassion and understanding for the struggles of everyone he met. “He lived the values of the seven grandfather’s teachings,” said Donna LaChapelle, an Ojibwe elder. “He was such a beautiful spirit, full of love for everybody.”

As a well-known sculptor, painter and jewelry maker, Ernie brought his passion for art into every aspect of his life. Trained as a painter, he graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from the University of Minnesota. He became fascinated by pictographs, expanding his visual storytelling through sculpture created from steel, neon, bronze, wood and stone. As Ernie realized how little was known about Native art and artists, he began teaching, joining arts boards, and working with large cultural institutions including the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Art Institute, and Intermedia Arts. As a co-founder of the Native Arts Circle, Ernie helped open doors for young Native artists.

Deanna StandingCloud, a Red Lake citizen and former student, remembered meeting Ernie when he was a community teacher at Fond du Lac College for 11 years. “He opened my eyes,” Deanna said. “He explained that reclaiming art as it was for indigenous people was a form of decolonization. He was so willing to share what he knew with every single student.”

Known for his humorous, insightful storytelling, Ernie was in demand as a public speaker, cultural advisor and knowledge keeper, often participating in high profile events such as the Seeds for Native Health conference. True to his role as a traditional elder, however, his guidance often came through quiet, casual conversations. He knew how to listen without judgment, and offer the words that were needed, directed by an intuitive understanding that flowed from the spirit helpers who guided him. After a contentious conversation at a public event, Ernie suggested to the group that an open exchange was good and healing, that it offered a way forward, and shared a story of how that used to be the way things were done.

“That quiet, gentle offering opened my mind and heart and taught me to hold expression of conflict in a different way,” said Eleanor Savage, Program Director at Jerome Foundation. “Ernie’s teachings and wisdom will live on for generations.”

As he grew older, Ernie chose to leave behind a successful career as an artist and educator, and devote himself to teaching Native youth at Dream of Wild Health about indigenous culture, focusing on food sovereignty for Native communities. “We grow seeds and leaders,” he often said. Ernie taught himself to grow indigenous tobacco, carefully nurturing and preserving the seeds, while teaching youth how to respect it as a sacred medicine.

“Ernie taught me about the traditional use of tobacco,” said Alyssa Parkhurst, a former program participant. “He helped me tap into my spirituality. I would not be who I am today without Dream of Wild Health.”

Ernie lived a simple, nomadic life, often traveling in winter with his partner, Christina Elias, between Minnesota, the Southwest, and Wyoming. He cherished his family, especially his two beloved grandchildren, Louis and Molly. Ernie was intentional in teaching his daughter, Missy, to carry on the legacy of his work, and in preparing Louis and Molly for the cultural responsibilities they would inherit. Just as his ancestors, family and community had prepared him to do this work, Ernie prepared his family to step into his place, when it was time.

Through the years at Dream of Wild Health, and in all the communities in which Ernie has taught and shared stories with thousands of youth and adults, he was preparing for the day when he would no longer be with us. We are the seeds he has planted. His message to all of us: keep the work moving forward.

Blessings on your journey to the spirit world, Ernie. Pidamaye ye.