Coyhis developed Wellbriety, a substance abuse recovery program that taps the power of Native American culture, tradition and community to help heal his people.
[In 1990, just as Coyhis was learning to balance his passion with his paying work, Digital Equipment Corp. announced layoffs. Although his position was safe, his supervisor knew Coyhis’ heart was elsewhere and offered him a $141,000 buyout. Coyhis took it and put every spare penny into building White Bison.
The business model is “to run small, because we can do so much more by training out there,” Coyhis says. “If I died, the organization would survive. The spokesperson isn’t the movement anymore.”
Coyhis believes that many problems in Indian communities stem from the government-sanctioned boarding schools that Indian children were forced to attend beginning in the late 1800s. Children were made to cut their hair, attend church, and shun their native language and traditions. Sexual abuse was rampant.
Many children did not survive the experience, he says. Many of those who did – including Coyhis’ parents – were so traumatized that they turned cold and unfeeling, even toward the younger generation.
Coyhis nearly passed on the legacy of the trauma to his own children. But that’s one more community he worked to rebuild. Although it wasn’t always the case, his eight adult children are sober. “My family has broken the chain of addiction,” he says. “My grandbabies will not know alcoholism.”
Coyhis’ affect on the health, wellness and happiness of the Indian nation is immeasurable, says Henrietta Mann, a Cheyenne elder and president of the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Tribal College at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.
“I’ve never known him to waiver,” she says. “It’s a very long time to be dealing with a task of the magnitude that he has taken on. There is no one like him in the Native American community.”]