Suppose you have 100 acres full of sick trees who want to get well. If each sick tree leaves the forest to find wellness and then returns to the forest, they get sick again from the infection of the rest of the trees. The Elders taught us that to treat the sick trees you must treat the whole forest - you must create a healing forest. If not, the trees will just keep getting sick again. Don Coyhis
"Bill White: Could you talk more about what has guided the Wellbriety Movement?
Don Coyhis: What I was relying on in the early years was a combination of my corporate training, organizational development training, and service technology, but most of this didn’t work in Indian country.
So it was then that we created a gathering of Elders to talk about what we were trying to do. They talked to us about the old days when there was a structure in place to instruct the people--what we would call today culture. Each tribe had its own culture. We had to be reminded that what were searching for had existed at one time but that we had forgotten it. So they told us, “We’re going to tell you how you can find it again.”
They said that the guiding force that you need to know is what the teachers of the old days were once given. We once had an understanding of the significance of our creation, all our laws, principles, and values that were part of who we were as a People. And they said we’re going to give you a start, no matter how hard it may seem.
But we gave them a picture of communities that are dominated by alcoholism and domestic violence and all the other issues that flow out of generations of trauma. We actually thought it could not be done, that the problems were too complex and too ingrained. So they said, “We will tell you over a period of years about certain laws, and if you are guided by these laws, you will succeed.
So they talked to us about change and that change had to come from within. They told us that change had to be preceded by a vision. Each community in order to change itself had to do so from within and had to have its own vision created by the people. And tied into that also was a teaching all parts of the cycle of life - baby, youth, adult and elder - had to participate in a great learning if change was to occur. Then they talked to us about the need to create a healing forest.
Suppose you have 100 acres full of sick trees who want to get well. If each sick tree leaves the forest to find wellness and then returns to the forest, they get sick again from the infection of the rest of the trees. The Elders taught us that to treat the sick trees you must treat the whole forest - you must create a healing forest. If not, the trees will just keep getting sick again.
The community forests are now filled with alcoholic trees, drug-addicted trees, co-dependency trees, domestic violence trees, and trees with mental issues. The soil in which those trees are growing is missing the ceremonies, the songs, the stories, the language, and the wisdom of our Elders. When we lost these things, we no longer knew who we were and we were left with anger, guilt, shame, and fear. These were the understandings that the Elders communicated in the early days of the Wellbriety Movement.
And when they gave us that model, we detected for the first time these laws that we needed to guide us, and they told us we would have to test them to make sure they were dependable. They gave us knowledge of the old ways, telling us we couldn’t just jump in there and do it any way, that we had to follow the natural order.
They said all the harmony of the natural order will come back when we follow the natural order. The whole universe runs together so you have to work with it. So all my corporate training meant nothing. It had hardly any value. The Elders gave us an alternative way to work with our communities."
"Bill: One of the programs I have been impressed with is the Warrior Down Program. Could you describe that?
Don: Actually, programs like this have been designed and developed by conflict. The first programs we did were for men and the women questioned their exclusion. So then we developed programs for women.
So then we have these people in recovery groups starting to get healthy, and it actually made the families worse. That’s how we came to develop the family trainings.
This learning process eventually led us to the Seven Trainings. The Warrior Down Program grew out of our recognition of the plight of Indian people in prison. We knew that 85% of Native People returned to prison when released.
We didn’t know exactly how to address that so we contacted some of the Elders and some with relatives of those in prison. It was there that we learned the concept of Warrior Down - that when warriors were hurt or killed in a battlefield, other warriors would risk their lives save them.
Now we know that when you come out of a prison, you come out with a hundred bucks, no social or recovery support, and a stigma to your name. We went to the community and identified community members who would help with this re-entry process. Some said I can drive them to AA meetings. Some said I can help them get a job. Another said, I can help people get a driver’s license.
We built these supports around 50 people coming out of prison and 39 never drank again and none of them have gone back to prison. One of them did drink, but those supporting him heard he had been drinking and got him sober and to an Indian recovery program where he stayed for three months. Now he’s leading the group and helping others coming out of prison. In Montana, we’ve gone to all the prisons and are helping communities to go through the Seven Trainings and to help people return from prison to their communities.
Bill: Now you followed that with a history project. Can you talk about the project that led to the book, Alcohol Problems in Native America: The Untold Story of Resistance and Recovery - The Truth about the Lie?
Don: As you know, that project started with a conversation we had when we first met in Minnesota may years ago. You challenged me to write a book about the history of recovery among Native tribes, and I said I would consider it if you would help me.
Now years later, that completed book is changing the consciousness of our Native communities and changing our response to alcohol problems. The book is helping our people understand that alcohol is the symptom not the prime cause. For the first time in our efforts of dealing with the alcohol problems, we are now working on the right stuff.
The book is now spreading rapidly and forcing us to examine alcohol through the lens of historical and intergenerational trauma. It is exciting to see the two books White Bison has published used as texts in a growing number of Indian tribal colleges." Excerpts from Bill White interview of Don Coyhis in 2007