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
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
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.”