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White Bison founder says award will fund his dream

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Older people are sometimes overlooked, but one Native 66-year-old innovator in the substance abuse field has been recognized with a $100,000 award for his work.

Don Coyhis, member of the Mohican Nation, Stockbridge Munsee Reservation, and founder and president of the nonprofit White Bison Inc., was honored with a Purpose Prize from Civic Ventures, a national think tank that honors those 60-plus years of age in second careers in order to create a human talent pool to solve societal problems.

He joins four other winners of the top prize and five $50,000 winners, all of whom are “using their experience and passion to take on society’s biggest challenges,” it was announced Oct. 26. They were honored Oct. 31 – Nov. 1 at a Summit on Innovation at Stanford University.

“To have something available for somebody older than 60 years – it’s usually the opposite,” Coyhis said. “And to have it recognized – it’s not just the honor of it, because I can pick something I’ve always wanted to do, and do it.”

The “something” he is picking surpasses the new gray suit he selected for the awards ceremony.

“I’ve always wanted to create a national Native Wellbriety Institute, and that is what I will do,” he said, pointing out that he has had to travel extensively from White Bison offices in Colorado Springs to provide training in addiction-plagued Native communities and for related work in substance abuse-related recovery programs.

The “wellbriety” concept extends past sobriety “to thriving in one’s own life and in the life of the community” and “living by the values and the laws of traditional Native American culture,” he said.

“Two things will happen at the Institute,” he said, noting it will remain in Colorado Springs. “They can come here and not wait for training out there, and I can start offering the training by Webcast and Webinars. We can do that same training for multiple communities and we can reach remote villages.”

The Wellbriety Movement has widened via Sacred Hoop journeys, talking circles, healing ceremonies, drumming circles, and the empowerment of Firestarters, people recovering from substance abuse and willing to commit to sobriety and helping their communities become substance-free.

Most recently, Coyhis’ Wellbriety Journey for Forgiveness traveled nearly 7,000 miles cross-country with a petition signed by thousands to promote “a collective healing of all Americans from this tragic chapter in America’s history,” stopping at boarding schools along the way.

Formation of the Native Wellbriety Institute is occurring in “healing time foretold in prophecy,” he said, referring to an account of a spider weaving a web around earth that “we now believe was the Internet.”

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“With this funding that we’re getting from the Purpose Prize, we’ll be able to do that (create the institute),” he said. “After all the years of building this movement – to see it get a boost and go to the other side of the tipping point is incredible.

“A little bit of it (receiving the award) feels guilty, because the people are doing the work. But I accept this on behalf of the recovery movement.”

Coyhis, who himself has 30 years’ sobriety, notes that a government study last year found that alcohol-related deaths among Natives are more than three times those of the general population.

But he has also found that a Native-centric approach was necessary for treatment to be effective, and he uses a “Medicine Wheel 12 Steps” approach to the Alcoholics Anonymous principles.

“Take the standard organizational chart, for example – the boss at the top and the greatest number of people at the bottom,” he said. “That structure wouldn’t help an alcoholic on the reservation, when the greatest number of people must help the person who needs it most.”

As a result, he works with alcoholics’ families and others, noting, “In the forest you have the alcoholic trees, the co-dependent trees, all the other kinds. But you have to work on the roots. If you only treat the trees, your forest won’t last.”

Henrietta Mann, president of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal College at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, told Purpose Prize officials that Coyhis’ effect on the health, wellness and happiness of Indian people is “immeasurable.”

“I’ve never known him to waver. It’s a very long time to be dealing with a task of the magnitude that he has taken on. There is no one like him in the Native American community.”

Coyhis is the author of “Meditations with Native American Elders,” “Understanding Native American Culture: Insights for Recovery Professionals,” and “Red Road to Wellbriety: In the Native American Way (ed.).”

Other winners of the top prize include a former telecom executive who brought laid-off factory workers back to profitable farming, a professor who invented a way to transform toxic fly ash into green bricks, a psychiatrist who offers free mental health treatment to soldiers, and a couple who honor their son, a 9/11 victim, by helping bring mental health services into war-torn countries.

Funding for the Purpose Prize came from The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation.