Don Coyhis wins $100k prize for White Buffalo program


doncoyhis.jpgAfter 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

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.”