Springs man wins $100k prize for program that helps Native Americans

October 23, 2009
photo - Don Coyhis is the founder of local nonprofit White Bison. He won a $100,00 national award for social innovation.  Photo by JERILEE BENNETT, The Gazette
Don Coyhis is the founder of local nonprofit White Bison. He won a $100,00 national award for social innovation. Photo by JERILEE BENNETT, The Gazette 

After marking 31years of sobriety in August, Don Coyhis considered retiring from the nonprofit organization he founded 21 years ago in Colorado Springs to help Native Americans overcome alcoholism, drug abuse and other health and social issues facing their communities.

This month, however, he got news that made him rethink his idea. His organization, White Bison, was named one of five winners of the Purpose Prize. The payout: $100,000.

The national award is run by a San Francisco-based think tank, Civic Ventures, and funded by various foundations. It recognizes social innovators over 60 years old and in “encore careers,” who are solving problems that face communities. This year’s winners, chosen from among 1,200 nominees, are being announced today.

Coyhis, 66, said the money will help catapult his organization to the next level — much like the white bison image he saw rising out of the ground while he was fasting in the Rampart Range mountains two decades ago, inspiring him to use his Indian culture to help his people overcome addiction.

He plans to use the prize money to move to a larger office and launch a national Native American “Wellbriety” training institute, employing the Internet and in-house programs to fulfill his vision of bringing his concepts of wellness to the nation’s 564 tribes.

“This funding will accelerate the healing — matching tradition and technology will create a powerful force. I’m pretty pumped,” said Coyhis, who grew up in an alcoholic household on a Mohican reservation in Wisconsin.

After his epiphany, Coyhis left his job as a senior manager at Digital Equipment Corp. in Colorado Springs and created an indigenous method of addressing addiction, obesity, domestic violence, suicide, divorce and other problems plaguing sovereign nations.

Coyhis’ model uses a 12-step program similar to that used by Alcoholics Anonymous, but it also incorporates cultural elements, including a medicine wheel, group drumming circles, songs, healing ceremonies and the teachings of elders.

“The reason we’re in this situation is because our culture was taken away,” he said. “When I regained my culture, I realized I was not ashamed to be a Native, but proud.”

Coyhis also involves all members of a tribe in the healing process, from elders to children. He said he’s worked with more than half of the tribes and many incarcerated Native Americans.

Coyhis traces the root of tribal ills to boarding schools, which the U.S. government started in 1879 to assimilate Native Americans into society. But he says the program backfired by stripping Indians of their tribal culture and exposing them to physical and sexual abuse.

Alexandra Céspedes Kent, director of The Purpose Prize, said Coyhis stood out from the other nominees because of his “trailblazing” approach to addressing the needs of the Native American community.

“His organization has trained over 2,000 individuals to implement Wellbriety principles in their own communities,” she said in an e-mail. “We saw The Purpose Prize as an investment in what Don is going to do next — bring sobriety through Native American principles to over 100 communities by 2010.”

Eulala Pegram, originally from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, took Coyhis’ program in January to become a trainer at a new Indian Center opening in Colorado Springs. She said Coyhis’ approach works.

“The material is effective. It draws you back to your culture and the strengths for being a responsible person and being family and community. I’m very impressed,” she said.

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