Native American Capitalist Ambition Is Unfolding


October 7, 2011

The Circle - Native American News & Arts, Minneapolis, MN

An unusual experiment featuring equal parts science and Native American capitalist ambition is unfolding.

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

But in October he got news that made him rethink his idea. His organization, White Bison, was named one of five winners of the Purpose Prize, with a monetary award of $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, were chosen from among 1,200 nominees. This year's prizes range from $50,000 to $100,000.

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.

After his epiphany, Coyhis left his job as a senior manager at Digital Equipment Corp. in Colorado Springs and created an indigenous focused 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.

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.”

© Associated Press

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