Reflections on a Man and a Movement

My relationships with White Bison founder Don Coyhis and with the Native American Wellbriety Movement are among the most important influences on my recovery advocacy and recovery research activities. I first met Don in the late 1990s as rumblings of a new addiction recovery advocacy movement in the United States were just beginning. In the years that followed, Don and I had innumerable opportunities to collaborate. We served together on boards of recovery advocacy organizations, shared speaking platforms at national conferences, and co-authored numerous articles and a book on the history of recovery in Native America. Through those years we mentored each other and became endeared friends—brothers of another mother, as is sometimes said.

At each event we mutually attend, Don and I seek time alone to talk about our evolving ideas and how we can best serve the recovery advocacy movement. As I look back over these years, Don’s contributions to my own continuing recovery, my own thinking, and the recovery advocacy movement seem endless. His books, videos, and innumerable trainings are filled with profound insights, but among this large menu, Don made two exceptionally unique contributions. He brought to the advocacy movement and to my own work a perspective of time (recovery across past and future generations) and a perspective of space (the ecology of recovery) that existed nowhere else in the recovery movement.

The time perspective Don conveys has many dimensions, beginning with a profound sensitivity to history. His teachings on historical trauma widen our understanding of how addiction and related problems have been transmitted intergenerationally within historically oppressed communities and how the legacies of such trauma can serve as potential obstacles to successful recovery. He further demonstrated how to “forgive the unforgiveable” and draw upon the history of cultural resistance and recovery to break such intergenerational cycles. Don has repeatedly reminded us that we cannot understand today’s addiction problems or their solutions without seeing them in historical context. He has a deep consciousness of and respect for ancestors and ancestral wisdom—how the teachings of elders conveyed through stories, songs, ceremonies, and sacred texts can aid recovery for individuals, families, and communities.

Don’s time perspective also embraces the future. He often suggests we consider how present proposed decisions and actions will affect people seven generations into the future. Knowing that much of our vision of transformed communities could not be completely achieved in our lifetime, Don conveys a sense of urgency to recruit young people into the recovery movement and to mentor these young people to carry forward work toward that vision. It was, in fact, that awareness that spurred a shared commitment by Don and I to create a body of written work that would be available to current and future generations of recovery advocates. In that sense, we were writing for our contemporaries, but also writing to people who will be here long after we have passed from the earth.

Don’s time perspective also includes the issue of timing—for individuals and communities. He admonishes that timing matters. A community must be ready for transformation before successful efforts can be launched. Like personal recovery, community recovery can be supported, but it cannot be forced. In Don’s work, Native communities have to demonstrate a commitment to community recovery before receiving a sustained commitment for support from White Bison. While Don’s presence often helps spark that commitment, it is the community itself that must demonstrate its desire to break entrenched patterns of passivity, helplessness, and hopelessness. Don expects a core group of community members to declare that they are ready—that it is their time.

When most people think of addiction recovery, they think of it as a highly intrapersonal process. Don brings to the recovery advocacy movement the gift of placing that personal recovery process in its environmental context. First, he suggests that the success or lack of success of personal recovery hinges to a great degree on community context—the degree to which the community environment invites and supports recovery or stands as an obstacle to recovery. Second, he suggests that there are whole communities that have been ravaged by addiction and points to the need for a community-wide recovery process. Third, he suggests that wounded individuals, families, and communities need a “healing forest” that can nurture and reciprocally support these recovery processes. Don is among a small cadre of innovative thinkers arguing that the exclusive focus on individuals/families should be extended to neighborhoods, communities, and the wider culture. He reminds us that recovery must be nested in the earth, that it requires anchoring to physical as well as social, psychological, and spiritual space. That conceptual breakthrough radically widens policy advocacy and recovery support options by illuminating as never before the role of community in recovery.

My publications on recovery management, recovery-oriented systems of care, recovery capital, community recovery, and recovery coaching as well as my broader recovery advocacy writings have been deeply enriched by my discussions with Don over these many years. Beyond the kinetic ideas he shared, Don influenced the language I use, my interest in the language of addiction and recovery, and our need—the recovery advocacy movement and the country—to purge language and labels dripping with centuries of stigma and moral censure. Much of this work began with Don’s simple and oft-quoted declaration: “Words matter. If you want to care for something, you call it a flower; if you want to kill something, you call it a weed.”

The recovery advocacy movement and recovery advocates across the world owe a great debt to Don Coyhis and the Native American Wellbriety Movement. Don, today we honor that debt by offering our deepest appreciation for all that you have done for us and with us and most importantly for serving as our wisdom keeper. In retrospect, the rising recovery advocacy movement was itself in need of a recovery coach—an elder guide—and you have served that role with uncommon skill, dignity, and humility. We extend our hearts to you in gratitude and look forward to our continued collaborations in the years to come.