Learn / What Is Wellbriety?

What Is Wellbriety?

Hannah Friedman
 September 12th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • The Wellbriety Movement aids Indigenous recovery through holistic wellness.
  • It uniquely combines Indigenous values with AA principles.
  • Cultural values, spirituality, and community support foster comprehensive healing.

Wellbriety is just what it sounds like — wellness and sobriety. The Wellbriety Movement supports Indigenous people in the process of addiction recovery. This holistic approach supports clients’ physical, mental, and spiritual healing.

Origins of the Wellbriety Movement

Don Coyhis, Mohican nation, founded the Wellbriety Movement in 1988.1 He began by teaching people the spiritual methods that helped him heal from alcohol addiction. Over time, these practices would help his daughter heal from meth addiction and grow into a nationwide movement empowering Indigenous communities.

How Is Wellbriety Different From Traditional Programs?

Wellbriety stands out from other recovery programs in several ways. This approach to recovery is open to Indigenous people nationwide. You can also learn from the movement’s published resources. 

These teachings are available through White Bison, a nonprofit organization Don Coyhis founded in the 1980s. Based in Colorado Springs, White Bison offers free in-person and online meetings. According to their website, this organization is “dedicated to creating and sustaining a grassroots Wellbriety Movement – providing culturally-based healing to the next seven generations of Indigenous People.” 

Coyhis’ philosophy marries several different traditions. For example, members of the Wellbriety Movement follow the Medicine Wheel 12 Steps.2 This framework combines Indigenous spiritual beliefs with the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

White Bison and the Wellbriety Movement address an urgent need. While drug and alcohol addiction, trauma, and mental health issues can affect anyone, they’re especially prevalent in Indigenous communities. The Red Road, another nonprofit supporting Native communities, notes the scope of this problem: “Despite only representing 2% of the U.S. population, Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol,3 marijuana, cocaine, and hallucinogen use disorders and the second highest methamphetamine abuse rates.”

Cultural Values

Wellbriety encourages people to heal from addictions by committing to shared cultural values. Many of White Bison’s principles4 direct communities to support each other. For example, they believe that “healing will take place through the application of cultural and spiritual knowledge.” This and other principles inform their holistic approach. In recovery, members come into alignment with themselves, their communities, and the natural world. 

Spiritual Focus

Spirituality is central to the Wellbriety Movement. Members believe in a Supreme Being and follow the teachings of community leaders. Many Wellbriety practices honor the Sacred Hoop, which holds great spiritual significance. In 1995, Indigenous Elders met in a sweat lodge and formed it out of a sapling. Since that time, the Sacred Hoop has traveled more than 200,000 miles around the U.S., connecting White Bison leaders with Indigenous communities.

Physical and Mental Health

Wellbriety encompasses both physical and mental health. Certain activities address both these goals at the same time. For instance, several studies show that drumming has powerful physical and emotional benefits.5 Partly for that reason, Wellbriety meetings often include drum circles.6 This practice also has spiritual meaning.

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Wellbriety and the 4 Laws of Change 

Among other principles, the Wellbriety Movement follows 4 laws of change.7 Coyhis received these laws from an Elder in the 1980s. Today, they are pillars of White Bison’s work. 

1. Change Is From Within

This law, Coyhis explains, “means that we must have an internal desire to make changes in our lives.” Only the person with an addiction can commit to recovery. That commitment can’t come from a loved one, or even from your whole community. But when you cultivate an inner desire to heal, you can accomplish remarkable things.

2. In Order for Development To Occur It Must Be Preceded by a Vision

Members of the Wellbriety Movement begin by imagining what their lives would be like without substance abuse. As Coyhis puts it, “What would our lives, our community, or our nation look like if it were working in a good way?” This question invites people to start dreaming about a better future. Once you have a clear vision of your best possible life, you can start bringing it into reality. 

3. A Great Learning Must Take Place

This law frames the healing process as a communal effort. Coyhis says that recovery “must include the individual, the family, the community, and the nation acting as an integrated whole.” In most addiction treatment programs, holistic recovery combines the different aspects of the self. Wellbriety takes this a step further, seeking to integrate personal wellness with communal growth. 

4. You Must Create a Healing Forest

When it comes to addiction and mental health recovery, your environment is essential. Members of the Wellbriety Movement understand this through the metaphor of the healing forest:8

Imagine a forest of damaged, dying trees. The sickness is in the air, the soil, and the water supply. It’s all around them. You notice one tree that seems especially unwell. You dig it up, move it, and plant it in rich soil. You give it water and sunlight and plant food, and it starts to thrive. When it’s ready, you bring it back to the original forest and replant it. Does that one tree heal the rest of the forest? No, of course not. Back in an unsupportive environment, it just gets sick again. 

The forest is a metaphor for the way addiction, poverty, and intergenerational trauma affect Indigenous communities. White Bison teaches that while one person going to rehab or attending therapy can help, it’s not enough. Entire groups of people have to commit to recovering together, supporting each other throughout a complex healing process.

Find Additional Resources and Support for Addiction Recovery

White Bison supports Indigenous communities9 around the country. The nonprofit also trains and certifies residential centers in Indigenous treatment methods. If the Wellbriety Movement resonates with you, look for a rehab that offers this approach to recovery.

Start your healing journey in a rehab that honors your culture.

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