Rebuilding Native American Communities

By Coyhis, Don; Simonelli, Richard | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Rebuilding Native American Communities


Coyhis, Don, Simonelli, Richard, Child Welfare


The Wellbriety Movement in Native American communities draws on the wisdom and participation of traditional elders. Beginning with a basic community teaching called the Four Laws of Change and the Healing Forest Model, the Wellbriety Movement blends Medicine Wheel knowledge with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to provide culture-specific addiction recovery help for Native Americans. The four Journeys of the Sacred Hoop brought the Wellbriety Movement to Native and non-Native people alike from 1999 to 2003.

Native American communities are entering their most significant time of healing and recovery since 1492. It is a time of hope for Native Americans and Alaska Natives because communities have increasingly turned their attention to recovering from alcohol and other addictions, regaining their cultures, and developing their communities in a manner that has not been historically possible until now. This time of new possibilities also includes a desire for better health and wellness, which is inseparable from the desire for education of all kinds among Native Americans. One Native American healing initiative began in 1985 and continues to grow even today.

The Four Laws of Change

In 1985, Don Coyhis, of the Mohican Nation, was in the first years of his own sobriety and recovery from alcohol. He wondered whether something could address his culture group as a whole regarding alcoholism recovery and the rejuvenation of the community. His question led him to visit a Native American elder in New Mexico in 1985. It caused him to found White Bison, Inc., in 1988, and his inquiry about how his people could be healed led him to a gathering of Native American elders in Loveland, Colorado, in July of 1991.

During his visit in 1985, the New Mexico elder gave Coyhis the first of the teachings or laws that would continue to come from Native American elders in other forms as the years went on. The teachings that would become the basis of the White Bison organization and the Wellbriety movement inspired by White Bison came to be known as the Four Laws of Change (White Bison, 2002a). The Four Laws of Change for Native American community development state the following:

1. Change is from within.

2. For development to occur, it must be preceded by a vision.

3. A great learning must take place.

4. You must create a healing forest.

The First Law, "Change is from within," means that human beings must change their thinking, values, beliefs, and attitudes before the community can gain lasting healing and a positive direction. It means that all lasting and positive change starts on the inside and works its way out. Although people may impose programs, projects, and plans on a community from outside, and they may be useful, without a freely given change of heart and mind among individuals, sustainable positive community change will remain elusive.

The Second Law, "Development must be preceded by a vision," means that community self-determination is most effective when the community itself participates in a visioning process to guide its own future. The community vision answers the questions, "As a community, what do we see when we look toward our future? What do we want to be-physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and socially? What would our community look like if it were working?"

The Third Law, "A great learning must take place," means that all parts of the cycle of life-baby, youth, adult, and elderin a community must participate in simultaneous learning experiences for the community to get well. For the youth to get well, the community must simultaneously work on its own wellness. The Great Learning includes personal healing and self-knowledge as well as technical learning. It means that community members will participate in ongoing educational opportunities that may include conventional academic education. In Native American communities, the Great Learning includes relearning the Native culture that may have been forgotten through years of historical trauma. …

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