By JODI RAVE
Of the Missoulian
MILES CITY - Many stories start by introducing a living person. This
story starts with what some describe as a living object - a sacred hoop.
The hoop is a willow branch rounded into a circle. One hundred eagle
feathers have been tied around the circumference. Those who come across
the hoop say it wields power. It is believed that each feather carries
people's prayers to the Spirit World, to the Creator.
The hoop and its keeper, Don Coyhis, traveled last month to every tribal
community in Montana, four correctional facilities and the state Capitol.
At each of the 13 stops, Coyhis explained how to live a life of wellness
through culture, including songs, language and ceremonies. People came
to the Hoop to offer prayers.
"Being around this hoop changed me, innermost me," said Vince,
a young man at the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City.
Vince thanked Coyhis. He said recent events had taken a toll on him.
He said he recently lost a friend. He felt alone, and he was losing
hope. "I was left with no breath."
Coyhis assured Vince he had just earned the respect of everyone in
the room, he said. Coyhis reminded the young men at Pine Hills that
they were loved and important.
"Our people want you back home," he said. "It's time
to come back home."
Coyhis, director of White Bison Inc. in Colorado Springs, Colo. - a
nonprofit health and wellness organization he founded in 1988 - shares
messages of hope through cultural healing across Indian Country. His
message has been spreading like wildfire.
"Nationally, we're at the tipping point," Coyhis said. "The
elders said we have entered a time of healing."
Coyhis has made six journeys with the hoop since 1999, logging more
than 35,000 miles and coming in contact with thousands of people. Elders
say the Hoop offers forgiveness, unity, healing and hope.
On the Flathead Indian Reservation, Coyhis told an audience about his
vision, in which a ball of light touched upon a tree. A hoop grew from
a tree branch, and an eagle feather appeared and hung from the hoop.
Soon, there were 100 feathers.
Elders told Coyhis to build the Hoop and to be its keeper.
Growing up on the Stockbridge Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin, he never
thought he would have a vision, let alone fulfill one.
Now that he's the keeper, it is his job to take the Hoop to those who
Coyhis travels with the Hoop and introduces people to something called
the wellbriety movement, which means healthy and sober living. "Wellbriety"
is a term coined by Coyhis and an elders council.
The movement emphasizes the importance of culture in prevention. Coyhis
encourages people to embrace centuries-old cultural teachings to achieve
balance among the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual parts of
Tribal elders say the teachings and the Hoop are open to people of
The cloth-covered hoop is wrapped in four colors - black, red, yellow
and white - to represent the unity among people of all skin colors.
"Everyone is welcome to this hoop," Coyhis said.
Coyhis has seen many people respond to the Hoop. People have shared
stories of strife and despair and of hope and healing. He has seen a
lot of tears. They cleanse the spirit.
Tears say what words cannot, said Leroy Comes Last, a spiritual leader
of the Fort Peck tribes in northeastern Montana. "They have a language
of their own."
On his journey through Montana, Coyhis invited community members to
share stories of healing in their lives. April Charlo came forward on
the Flathead Reservation. She was on the Salish Kootenai College campus,
walking between buildings in search of a power cord, when she saw the
White Bison van.
She dropped everything to listen to Coyhis. She recalled the day she
first saw him in Oklahoma. A group of Indians had gathered. The young
woman asked people what was going on.
Someone told her: "Indians are getting healthy."
Charlo went to see for herself. She left with thoughts about how alcohol
was damaging her life. About how it was killing her friends. The citizen
of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has been sober for five
When Coyhis took the Hoop to the Fort Peck Reservation, again, people
willingly shared stories of life changes.
"I grew up kind of crazy," said Mike Todd, of the Assinboine
and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck. His adult life was crazy, too. He said
he was one of the first people to bring methamphetamine onto the reservation.
It wasn't until Todd had to spend time in a rehabilitation and alcohol
treatment center that he participated in a ceremonial sweat lodge. That's
when he decided his life would be different.
He didn't knew of Coyhis before he heard him speak in Poplar last week,
but he understood what Coyhis was saying.
"Words can't describe what culture has done for me," Todd
said. "The inside of a sweat lodge is the best thing for me."
Coyhis and tribal elders have had nearly 20 years to build on the pursuit
of healthy living. It's now a multifaceted program centered on cultural
teachings, and it includes 12-step programs for men, women, girls, boys,
children of alcoholics, family members and re-entry programs for those
Additionally, Coyhis has invited 100 communities to participate in
the movement and bring healing to their friends and family by 2010.
Once they complete all the training programs, each community will be
given a handmade "big drum." Four communities have already
received drums. Twenty-five others are in training.
Once 100 communities complete the wellness program, they will gather
in White Earth, Minn., with all the drums.
Here's how the program works: A community assembles a team of at least
three people to lead seven areas of teachings. The goal is to create
a group of at least 21 individuals. Each volunteer is called a "firestarter."
It becomes their job to bring the 12 steps to wellness into their communities.
Since 2005, more than 1,500 people around the country have agreed to
be a firestarter. Training will be available in October for all Montana
communities that want to participate.
Already, the movement is bringing change to tribal communities.
The re-entry training component - called Warrior Down - provides assistance
to prison inmates as they return home. Coyhis said more than 80 percent
of Indian parolees return to prison within six months. But Warrior Down
has successfully kept 50 men in Idaho sober. And none has returned to
prison in the past two years.
The Sons of Traditon and Daughters of Tradition training components
are proving successful on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.
Marlin Farley, a firestarter, has introduced more than 300 youths in
Minnesota to wellness and sobriety in the past four years.
School officials and law enforcement officers have told him: "We
don't know what you're doing. Just keep doing it."
Jim Hunter, director of Montana's Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility,
said his counselors have just started using the 12-step program at Pine
Hills, where American Indian youth make up one-fourth of the inmate
population. The young men have responded positively, he said, especially
to the cultural aspects.
Many said they never had a chance to learn traditional songs or to
participate in sweat lodge ceremonies until they ended up in Pine Hills.
Keenan, a youth at Pine Hills, thanked Northern Cheyenne elders, Coyhis
and his helpers for sharing their time and wisdom. "It makes my
heart feel good."
"This brings back hope to me," he said. "I'll pray for
you guys. Pray for me."
Jodi Rave covers American Indian issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more about White Bison and the Wellbriety Program go to
This article appeared in the Billings Gazette on September 5, 2007
To see the article with pictures on the Billings Gazette site Click