Indigenous children were stolen from their homes, sent to boarding schools and forced to assimilate. Thus began the cycle of trauma and addiction. Today, the Wellbriety movement responds—providing a cultural framework for healing from those injustices and breaking the cycle.
0:00:12 Andrew Williams
Welcome to Let's Talk Recovery Equity, a series of conversations around how we can reach and help more people find freedom from addiction. This series offers us a unique opportunity to explore the complexities of substance use disorder and to consider pathways to hope, recovery, and healing. My name is Andrew Williams. And I serve as the Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. And I am the host of this series. And today, I am thrilled and honored to welcome our special guest, Kateri Coyhis. The Executive Director of White Bison. White Bison is an American Indian nonprofit dedicated to creating and sustaining a Wellbriety movement that offers individual, family, and community healing. I would describe Kateri as a Healer and a transformative leader. Who has been in the field for over twenty years. She currently is on the board of Faces and Voices for Recovery. And is also on the board of the National Association for Children of Addiction. [turns to laptop] Welcome, Kateri. And thank you for joining us for our series today. How are you?
0:01:19 Kateri Coyhis
I'm doing well today. How are you?
0:01:22 Andrew Williams
I'm doing well. Again I appreciate this opportunity to move in the conversation with you. And to begin our interview, I'd like to ask you to introduce yourself to our audience. Tell us a little bit about yourself, the communities of care that nurtured you, and what really fuels your passion for the work that you do in Native communities.
0:01:42 Kateri Coyhis
Thank you. [gives greeting] I said hello, my name is Kateri Coyhis, I am a world tribal member with the Mohican nation and I just gave you a greeting in my traditional language. I am speaking with you from our headquarters here in Colorado Springs. I am currently serving as the Executive Director of White Bison here in Colorado Springs. But one of my most important roles is first and foremost I am a person in long-term recovery. And so for me, that means that I have not used alcohol or drugs in ten years. This past April actually I was able to celebrate ten years of continuous Wellbriety.
0:02:28 Kateri Coyhis
A little bit about me. Because of my recovery, I get to serve for the organization that saved my life. Because of my recovery, I am a mother of two beautiful children. I have an almost eight-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son. Because of my recovery, I also get to be a partner of somebody who, you know, we built a family together and I have the honor of walking with him on this journey we call life. And so that's just a little bit about me. How I got into this work is that when I was about sixteen years old, I was going on a year of being addicted to meth and alcohol and all these other drugs. And I got an invitation from White Bison from the Founder of the organization to participate on a journey across the United States. And so what we did is we actually walked from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. It took us three and a half months. We walked 3800 miles across the U.S. from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. to help raise awareness for domestic violence on women and children. And so, when I started the journey and I got to L.A., I was two days sober and going through withdrawal from meth but nobody knew it. So I was detoxing in secret. But it was the very first time in my life that I got to be surrounded by my culture. It was the very first time that I got to be surrounded by other people in recovery. And so it started me on my path to recovery and then I've been connected to White Bison and the Wellbriety movement ever since.
0:04:11 Andrew Williams
Well thank you, Kateri, for your very rich introduction. And even more so, I wanna really share my appreciation for the vulnerability that you share in your introduction and sharing with others your inspiring story of recovery. And the ways in which you've sustained recovery—and congratulations on that. And the ways in which your recovery laid the foundation for so many of the rich life experiences that you've now had as a parent and as a partner and as a community leader. And it's really powerful for me to hear the role White Bison played. And like so many of my colleagues, you've made a decision to come back and contribute to an organization that helped you turn your life around. I'm wondering as my next question if you could share with us a little bit more about the origin story of White Bison. And what makes it distinctive in the broader field of addiction and recovery services?
0:05:07 Kateri Coyhis
So White Bison was founded in 1988. The President and Founder of our organization, Don Coyhis, he was also a person in recovery. And through his recovery journey, he found that there's a great need to bring a cultural aspect into his recovery process. And he decided to leave his corporate job. He was a very high-level manager at a digital equipment corporation and he left his job to dedicate his life to helping indigenous people heal from the impacts of alcohol. And so when we originally started, it was actually a youth organization. That's how we started as a youth organization. But we quickly found that there was a need to do more than just address our young people. If we wanted our young people to change our adults and elders needed to change, our families needed to change. And so we started to create a multitude of different programs to address the needs, you know, that there are in indigenous communities. The name White Bison was actually formed from a vision that he had. And there was basically when he went up on a hill to fast for four days and four nights. Until the ceremony that we do sometimes and he went to go fast and he had a vision of a white buffalo coming out of the ground. And so, White Bison became the name of our organization.
0:06:42 Andrew Williams
Thank you. I certainly appreciate and I know our viewers appreciate learning more about the origin story. That the motivation behind the founding of White Bison. And I think what I hear within what you share in that story is how White Bison has been deeply committed to seizing the full power of culture to advance hope and healing. I'm wondering if you could speak a little bit more to the role of culture. How cultures utilize and leverage to serve Native American communities that you work with.
0:07:17 Kateri Coyhis
Well, I think that in indigenous communities what you find is that culture is part of everyday life. You know, it's woven into what we teach our children. It's woven into how we build our families. It's woven into our connection to the Earth. And so, you know, we get a lot of our teachings from nature and from the Earth. And we get a lot of our teachings that have been passed down from the elders. One of the things that I really love about White Bison and our organization is that, you know, there's 572 federally-recognized tribes in this country and they're all different. And so what we do is we take a core set of universal human teachings. You know, principles, laws, values, that we weave into every program that we have. But we say here is a template. You take it back to your community. and you incorporate your own language and your own ceremony into these programs that we have developed. We just provide a framework and a starting point, but you go back they're very highly adaptable. And that's why we are able to work with indigenous communities throughout the U.S., in Canada, and then, you know, with the pandemic, we had a not-so-gentle push to go into a more virtual platform. So we're able to expand into indigenous communities in Australia, in New Zealand, in the U.K., and Ireland, and Mexico.
0:08:46 Andrew Williams
Well Kateri, I really appreciate this sort of picture you give us of White Bison as an organization, really as a movement, that's not suggesting or advocating for a cookie-cutter approach to advancing healing and recovery in Native communities, right? It's about offering sort of an infrastructure, a template, that offers some structured flexibility, right? Where the flexibility is grounded in the unique specific culture communities, American Indian culture communities, that might be accessing this larger platform and framework for advancing healing and recovery. I appreciate that. You know as I listen to your origin story, as I listen to the ways in which you utilize and leverage the power of culture for healing, one of the other concepts that stands out to me in your mission statement is this notion of Wellbriety. I'm wondering if you could unpack that for our audience a little bit and share with us what does that concept mean for those involved in the White Bison movement.
0:09:46 Kateri Coyhis
So, what Wellbriety is—it is originally it was a word in the Passamaquoddy language. There was not an English equivalent. And so, what Wellbriety means is it means going beyond just being sober and living a sober life that is balanced emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. It's about whole-person wellness. And so the analogy that we like to give is let's just say that you have a jerk who's drinking and all he does is quit drinking. [smiles] Well he's sober, but he's still a jerk. And so we have to work on all the four directions of growth. In order to be, you know, a healthy human being.
0:10:30 Andrew Williams
Well I really do appreciate that holistic orientation. And I think what White Bison and you remind us is that sobriety and treatment is not the end of healing, but really just the beginning. And that what you are committed to is a much more holistic and integrated approach to individual family and community healing. I was delighted just a couple months ago to have the opportunity to attend the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers Conference. In which White Bison won the Dr. Peter Hayden Diversity, Inclusivity, and Racial Equity Award. Not only did you all receive the award at that conference, you received a standing ovation from the hundreds of people gathered there. It was quite the powerful moment; I was very appreciative to be a part of it. I'm wondering if you could speak to what this NAATP Award means for the organization. What it means for your community.
0:11:27 Kateri Coyhis
Well, I think that coming from such a prestigious organization as NAATP is, we were very honored to receive that award. And be recognized for the work that we're doing in the addiction treatment and recovery field. And so, you know, we'd been striving to provide these culturally-based healing approaches through our organization. And it's definitely an honor to be recognized for the work. But most importantly, I think that it's an honor that the need for this kind of work is being valued. [nods] Because, you know, taking a culturally-based approach when we started probably wasn't the most popular terminology that was used. Or the most popular approach or, you know, very widely known. And so it just really speaks to the growth that we've had over the 33 years that our organization has been alive.
0:12:34 Andrew Williams
Yes. Yes. Well again, I was so happy to be a part of that recognition moment and so, so thrilled that your long-standing solidarity work is being recognized, you know, by the largest professional organization in our field. And as I prepared for our conversation today, I was struck by a couple things in your biography. And one is your service on multiple boards. And I noted that you serve on the Board for the National Association for Children of Addiction. And this really resonated with me as someone who grew up in a family that struggled with substance use disorder and just recently I had a chance to visit the Betty Ford Center. Where I had a chance to be inspired by our Children's Program there. I'm wondering if you could speak to the ways in which White Bison continues to address the needs of Native children. And are there particular issues that you would encourage us to be attentive to?
0:13:34 Kateri Coyhis
Well, you know, first I would like to say that the work that we're doing with NARCOA is really important. And you know they do a lot of work for children and families. And what we have been able to do is partner with NACOA to take their evidence-based program called Celebrating Families. And they have allowed us to take that program and to develop and incorporate a cultural overlay into the program that allows us to bring the program and make it applicable to indigenous communities. One of the things that I really love about the way they developed this program is that it's very much in alignment with what we call our Cycle of Life teachings. And so, baby, youth, adult, and elder. And what we talk about in some of our teachings is that there's eight feelings and eight thought patterns that a human being develops, you know, from the womb. And so the first feeling is that feeling of trust. You know, the world is a good place and I belong in it. and that happens, you know, right when we are born. And so, when we are born and we're small kids, then what we do is we either develop a sense of trust because we have that attachment to our families, or we develop a sense of mistrust. And that kinda determines the thought patterns that we develop. And so the way that the curriculum is in Celebrating Families is very similar to a lot of the teachings. And it's in alignment with the age groups that each of these feelings are developed. And so something you might be familiar with like Erikson's Eight Stages of Development. So a lot of people don't know that they actually got those teachings from indigenous people. And so, we really like that and we feel like there is a process of healing that takes place. And it starts with the individual, it moves into the family, then it moves into the community, and then into the nation.
0:15:42 Kateri Coyhis
And so these are part of our medicinal teachings. And making sure that we are providing opportunities for our kids and our families to have these, you know, healing programs and raising our kids in the way that we used to raise our kids is very important. And so, we offer a lot of different programs here through White Bison. And some of them are specifically geared towards our children. And we do prevention programs for our young people. We actually also have our treatment and recovery programs for our youth. We have a program called Mending Broken Hearts and that address healing from grief and trauma and especially the impacts of intergenerational and historical trauma. Because a lot of our kids don't have that understanding about why our communities are the way that they are and how they got there. So it kind of helps explain the connection to the intergenerational trauma impacts of it. How that affects our communities today. And so we have a program to help them with learning that, but then also processing some of that grief and trauma that they experience in their own lives. And then we have a program called Understanding the Purpose of Life. And so, this program is more geared towards education. But it takes these different teachings to them about how to find their purpose and how to find and recognize the gifts and talents that they're born with. Or that they could develop.
0:17:18 Kateri Coyhis
And we are actually also working on a program to help young people develop life skills. Because as we know, a lot of times in our communities when we're living in dysfunction, it's more about survival, right? We don't have the opportunity to learn some of those really key, important life skills that we need going into adulthood. And so we're developing a program to teach them these different life skills. So, how to change a tire, how to manage your money, how to do all these different things. But we always in our programs focus on emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual growth as well.
0:17:59 Andrew Williams
Well, thank you, Kateri for that response. And what's clear as I reflect on your response is that children, Native children, are really at the heart and center of the White Bison movement. And that's really inspiring to hear. And that the children are getting such holistic attention and supporting them toward living a life of Wellbriety. You know, one of the things that really excited me too about your biography is learning that you are co-author. And you contributed to a recent book entitled Radical Psychology: Multicultural and Social Justice Decolonization Initiatives. I'm wondering if you could briefly speak to the relationship between decolonization and healing in Native American families and communities.
0:18:51 Kateri Coyhis
Well, I think that it's really important to note that my perspective anyway about decolonization is it's about reframing the narrative. About our indigenous communities. It's about reframing the narrative about bringing that culturally-based aspect to healing and wellness in our communities. And the importance and value that it holds. You know, historically there's a lot of things that happened to indigenous people that have impacted our people and our communities and our families. And so, a lot of that can be traced back to the time of the boarding and residential and mission schools. Where our children were taken away from our families and, you know, their hair was cut, they were given English names, they were forced to learn Christianity and to speak the English language. And if they didn't do that, then, you know, they were punished. And so there was a huge loss of learning how to speak their language. There was a huge loss of culture. There was a huge loss of their land. There was a huge loss of spirituality. A long time ago, we were really, really good at raising children. We were really good at making connections to children and families and to the community. you know, they were all interconnected. And we were really good at teaching our children things like botany and geography and geometry and astronomy. But this wasn't done, you know, through the Western model, it was done through you know the teachings that we got and the stories that we told.
And so, what happened is at that time, when these kids were taken to the boarding schools, and they were forbidden to practice their cultural traditions and they were forbidden to speak their language, that they existed in these spaces where there was a lot of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse. And when you think about a generation of children, they grew up some as young as four or five years old, that's all they knew. That's all that they knew how to do. They didn't know how to love, they weren't taught how to love and how to nurture, you know, we lost that connection to each other. We lost that connection to the Earth. And so, when they grew up to become parents, they passed that down to their children. And then they passed that down to their children, and it created this you know vicious cycle of abuse. What we talk about is like there's a forest, right? We get all of our teachings from nature. So if you can imagine that there's this forest of trees, you know, and there's all these different kinda trees, there's alcohol trees, there's drug use trees, there's suicide trees, there's family violence trees, there's all these different trees that represent the issues that we see in our communities. These are the issues that started to come up as a result of the traumas that indigenous people experienced. And so, you know, as they're growing up and they're dealing with the abuse and the different hardships that they went through, they were self-medicating and you know that led to a lot of violence. And there was an increase in suicides and there was an increase in, you know, family violence. All of that can be traced back to that time. And so, it's important to recognize that by introducing this concept of decolonization, what we're talking about is we're talking about reframing that narrative to understand that we're dealing with wounded individuals. And that there's nothing wrong with them, but that we need to be able to offer, you know, equip them with tools and knowledge on how to, you know, how to help them heal.
0:22:59 Kateri Coyhis
And so, that's kinda my perspective on it. But we talk about this healing forest model a lot because what we say is that, you know, you have this forest of trees and they're all sick, and you take one of the sick trees out of that forest and you take it to the nursery and you give it all the nutrients and sunshine and everything that it needs to become a good, healthy tree. And then, you know, you take that tree to treatment or whatever and you put that tree back in that sick forest. What's gonna happen to that tree? That tree is gonna get sick again. And so we have to focus on healing everyone in the forest. Creating this healing forest model where we're creating opportunities for everyone. Individuals, families, and communities to all heal. And so, that's the model that we use. And we talk about like if you had the Earth and you were to cut it in half, you know, above the Earth is everything that we can see. So this is the physical world. [gestures with hands] But below the ground, those are the things that you can't see. And those are where the roots of the trees are. Right? And so a long time ago in our communities, you know, where we had healthy men, healthy women, healthy leadership, healthy elders, healthy kids, all these different things. We were grounded in culture and spirituality and interconnectedness and unity and healing and all these different things. And now, what we see in this unhealthy forest is we're rooted in anger and guilt and shame and fear. And we have to look at addressing that root cause of all these issues that are popping up in our communities. Because, you know, alcohol, substance use, family violence, these are not the causes. These are the symptoms. And the symptoms of the impacts of the intergenerational and historical trauma that has been introduced into our communities.
0:24:54 Kateri Coyhis
And so what we've found is that there are more studies, scientific studies, that are coming out now that when trauma is introduced into the system, it literally changes the epigenetic discourse of the DNA. And so it is literally handed down from there. And so instead what we're trying to do, you know, through our efforts of promoting intergenerational healing is we're trying to create these opportunities and spaces for intergenerational healing instead. Because we know that when we bring in the culture and we know that when you bring in that spirituality component, that's what helps us heal.
0:25:35 Andrew Williams
Kateri, thank you again for another rich and very illuminating answer. And I really appreciate the ways in which you really deepen our understanding of the complex impacts of intergenerational trauma. You know, on ways of being, on community relationships, and patterns of substance use disorder. Within Native communities. And the ways in which you highlight decolonization as an important process that really gets at the root cause of substance use disorder. Within the Native American community. and I think within that process of decolonization, I would argue also is the pathway and opportunity for healing as an American society, not just a pathway for healing for American Indians. So thank you for sharing your insights around these complex sort of variables impacting our community. And I wanna thank you just more generally. For the wisdom, the experiences, and tremendous insights you shared with us today in our conversation. Please know that I recognize and appreciate as does our Foundation the advocacy work you do on behalf of American Indian communities and the real life-changing, life-saving work you do each day. So thank you again very much for your generosity of spirit and time today.
0:26:53 Kateri Coyhis
[puts palms together and speaks in her language] That means thank you in my language.
0:26:57 Andrew Williams
[turns to camera]
All right. I wanna thank all of you for joining us for today's important discussion. I hope you'll let your friends and colleagues know about these conversations. And please come back often to catch more episodes of Let's Talk Recovery Equity. Together, we can build a happier, healthier, and more equitable tomorrow.