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 need it.
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 themselves.
Tribal elders say the teachings and the Hoop are open to people of all races.
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 years now.
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 in prison.
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 email@example.com or 800-366-7186.
To learn more about White Bison and the Wellbriety Program go to http://whitebison.org
This article appeared in the Billings Gazette on September 5, 2007 To see the article with pictures on the Billings Gazette site Click Here