Reflecting on the Contributions of the Elders to the Wellbriety Movement

 Wellbriety Movement


White Bison’s Wellbriety Programs and the Wellbriety Movement itself are based in the Teachings of the Elders, and guided by our Circle of Elders.  Over the years people have asked us what that means and how that works.  We would like to introduce our Circle of Elders and reflect upon some of their teachings.

grannyNewJenniferFirst, it is helpful to explore the nature of an Elder.   Elders are not just “old people.”  In fact, most of the Elders who carry that designation do not think of themselves as “old people.”  Even into their 90s, they pay attention to the world around them, engage in community and ceremonial activities, and work to improve the lives of their people. They are sought out to share their wisdom, experience, and their hope.  They are grounded in their traditions, culture, their spirituality and hold a broad vision of the interconnectedness of all things. Many have taken the time to learn the traditional language, which allows them to experience life through the ways of seeing shared by their ancestors.

 Elders do not designate themselves as such.  Rather, they are identified by the communities they serve.  They often serve as unofficial leaders; or are called upon to explore the “sticky” challenges that community leaders and families experience on a day to day basis.  Elders provide a balance and harmony where conflict lies; they look for the bigger picture and the common ground.  Often, Elders help us to see things differently through a story; sometimes these stories can seem like riddles.  They make us change our thought patterns and bring us to a new understanding of what is important.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Here is what Elders have brought to the Wellbriety Movement over the years.  “Long time ago” Elders shared prophecies – messages about the future.  Their stories foreshadowed the coming of the web around the world;  the Eagle going to the Moon; identification of the challenges of the Native people  that would lead to healing.  “Long time ago” Elders provided role models on how to solve community problems, how to raise children, how to “be” a Native man or a Native woman.   Not only do we use their teachings, but some non-Native researchers, like Erik Erikson, have written about the role that Elders and Grandmothers played in developing their research models. Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development was grounded in part from his discussions with Yurok and Sioux Grandmothers in the 1940s.   His model is used as the framework for the Daughters of Tradition and Sons of Tradition.  


Hoop_Staff1#ACCENatural Law and prophecies were shared with us by Elders from many different nations.  Of special importance were those Elders who helped to launch the Wellbriety Movement.  An Elder from a NorthEastern nation helped us to coin the term Wellbriety.  Then, to further develop the movement,   Elders from the 4 Directions (yellow direction , Tibet; red direction, Native; black direction, African; and white direction, Sammi) met in Janesville MN in 1994 to bless the Sacred Hoop. Each constributed one of the 4 Powers of the Sacred Hoop:  power to forgive the unforgivable; unity—we have to come together to do this work together;  power of healing — we have to heal ourselves;  power of Hope that lead us to dream.  White Bison is the Keeper of the Sacred Hoop of 100 eagle feathers.  The feathers represent 100 communities.  We have traveled over 150,000 miles taking the Sacred Hoop to inspire healing  and Wellbriety in Native communities throughout the United States and Canada, including Alaska.

 Elders in the recovery movement have played a significant part in shaping the Wellbriety Movement. The documentary , How AA came to Indian Country provides an overview of the early work by Native Elders to address alcohol problems in Native communities.  The book Alcohol Problems in Native America: The Truth about the Lie begins with stories of how healing was addressed by Handsome Lake , a member of the Seneca Nation, in the 1700s.   In the Red Road to Wellbriety, the stories reflect the recovery journeys of many of the Elders who have played a role in the Wellbriety Movement.  Meditations with the Native American Elders is a collection of sayings from Elders of many different nations across the Americas.  These are also available as daily meditations by subscription through the White Bison website.  The teachings of the Elders provided the impetus for the Medicine Wheel and 12 Steps.  In this recovery program, the 12 Steps are placed in a circle, and the traditional teachings are used to help men, women and family members work through their recovery issues.  The Four Laws of Change and the Teachings of the Medicine Wheel are integral to this cultural approach to recovery.


Over the years, there have been a number of gatherings where people met with Elders to resolve specific issues:  sometimes they gathered to share what works in community development;  sometimes, to identify what is needed in education or child development.  Some gatherings were called to address specific issues, such as the 1996 Gathering of Native American Men in Florissant, Colorado.  Over 2000 people camped out for 3 days to hear the Elders speak.   Out of that gathering came Seven Philosophies which provide the core teachings for Fathers of TraditionSons of Tradition, Mothers of Tradition and Daughters of Tradition. One of the Elders at this particular gathering extended the idea of “Elder.”  In response to the question of “what is an elder,” this Elder replied: “an Elder is someone that you look up to for the right way to do things.”  Thus, everyone is someone’s Elder;  the 12 year old looks to the 15 year old; the 7 year old looks to the 12 year old, and the 3 year old looks to the 6 year old. Each of us has something to teach and we must keep that in mind: that what we teach can be helpful, or hurtful.   

Sometimes, White Bison has gone out to find Elders who will share their ideas about specific problems. The cross country Journeys of the Sacred Hoop that took place over the years, brought new teachings to light and brought new messages from Elders about the impact of Intergenerational and Historical Trauma on the Native people.  These are included in the Wellbriety Journey of Forgiveness and also provided the inspiration for the Mending Broken Hearts training.


The Wellbriety Movement also has a Council of Elders who provide guidance on a routine basis.  Of course in today’s world they are available by phone, text or Skype!  They have specialties, like language, cultural and spiritual traditions, mental health, traditional medicines, education, recovery, treatment, and prevention. Several have doctorates and Masters degrees.  Some have published books.   At the recent 2014 Wellbriety Gathering, we celebrated the contributions of the Council of Elders.  We want to give credit for the  Wellbriety “song” — where it is due. 


Bill Iron MOcassinBill Iron Moccasin (Lakota)

One of the very first people who tried to bring AA to Indian country.  The first story in the Red Road to Wellbriety is “Bill’s Story.”   One of the important messages he gave us was this one:  “If you dig deep enough into our history, go back into your culture and where you are from, a lot of the concepts that come up as social solutions and resolutions about what our human behavior should be, our people were practicing in some way or another before the European ever came over here. I tell the youngsters who I work with that they are the descendants of a very, very intelligent race of people.”



Cathleen Brooks Weiss Cathleen

We always give credit where credit is due; “this is where it came from”   …..  The Wellbriety Movement was handed to us by someone who had done the work before.  I was honored to take what was there and take it to the next place.  White Bison  would not be doing what we are doing if it wasn’t for NANACOA, the National Association for Native American Children of Alcoholics.  This organization provided a focus for healing and support for thousands of Native people throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes, the Creator sends an angel to sprinkle many people with “go do something” dust!  One of those people was Cathleen Brooks Weiss.  She is known internationally as a pioneer and expert in linking physical illness and unresolved emotional pain, and her professional life has always focused on finding creative ways to meet the needs of such patients. Her own battles with cancer, addiction, and chronic pain inspired the comprehensive mind-body-spirit approach that is the basis of Next Step® Institute. In addition to Next Step® Institute, Cathleen also co-founded and presided over the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACoA), the leading advocate for children and adults affected by parental addiction.  In the 1980s, Cathleen provided the inspiration for the formation of the National Association for Native American Children of Alcoholics.  This organization then, inspired the work of White Bison and the Wellbriety Movement.


Horace&Andrea AxtellsmallHorace and Andrea Axtell  (Nez Perce)

He has guided us from the beginning.  Always available, never says no. Brought his bell .  At the beginning of one of the Sacred Hoop Journeys, he shared this message with us:  “Today we have a special thing, a special walk–– the Journey Begins. I’m going to ask the Creator to bless these people, to give them strength, and with each step closer to their goal, their bodies will be strengthened. Each step

that they take will strengthen the healing process of our people and heal our hurt. Many of our  ancestors will be thought about. They, too, will be part of this Journey because they are the ones who got hurt in the first place. And as we go from day to day, you will meet one hundred or more sunrises. Each day you’ll get closer to the end of the Journey. After I sing this song and ring the bell three times the Journey will begin.”


DrHenriettaDr. Henrietta Mann (N. Cheyenne)

Dr. Henrietta Mann has been an integral part of the development of the Wellbrieety family programs (Families of Tradition, Mothers of Tradition, Fathers of Tradition, Sons of Tradition and Daughters of Tradition).  Her sharing of teachings of the Cycle of Life provided the framework for these trainings.   After years as a professor and an advocate for Native sovereignty and wellness,  Dr. Henrietta came out of retirement to start a the Cheyenne / Arapaho tribal community college.  She does the ceremonies and songs.  She also reminds us what we stand for:  “We do not need to remain locked into those areas where we feel a great deal of anger and hostility to the dominant population because as White Bison says, we have to forgive the unforgivable. There are many that have and there are many who are yet to do that. Only when we forgive the unforgivable can we really say we are healing, that we have addressed that one aspect of our life. Saying we can forgive, now we can heal.”


OzzieOzzie Williamson, M.A. (Blackfeet)

Has been with us since the beginning.  Ozzie taught me to look forward. When this first started, I had doubts about what I was going to do….. so I went to see Ozzie, and when I left there I never looked back.

One of the stories that Ozzie tells is this:  “When I walked down the trail with my grandmother, she always wore moccasins   with a soft sole. If there happened to be a little stick on the trail, she would stop and kick it off the trail. One day I said, “Grandma, why do you always do that, why do you always stop and kick those things off the trail?” She said, “It just makes it easier for somebody else to come by.” I never realized until she was long gone years later that the things she tried to tell me were very similar to the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. What I heard in AA was similar to some of her teachings.”


                                                                                                                                                                                                               Della web Della Bad Wound (Oglala)  Della had been employed in the human services field for 50 years working with women, children, youth and elderly.  Her employment included the founding of Western South Dakota Senior Services in western South Dakota as the program director for 17 Nutrition sites for the elders.  Denver Indian Health & Family Services, Winyan Wasaka-Women’s Alcohol Prevention Program,  Seventh Generation Project, University of Denver; Elder health Program with Four World’s Development, Inc. in Lethbridge, Canada; and as a Native Sister with the Native American Cancer Research Project.  She has been working with the documentation and preservation of the Lakota Language with the University of Colorado in Boulder for the past 6 years.

 Harriett Skye                                                                                                                                                                                                          Dr. Harriett Skye (Lakota, Standing Rock) is an educator.  She has a strong interest in seeing young Native people learn about their nations and return to them after their education to help. In an interview in 2011 with the Women’s Connections, she provides some insights: My Lakota name is Blue Sky Woman, a family name. Having an Indian name has always helped my brothers and I to know who we are.”  She also commented on one of the challenges that Native people experience that is important for the Wellbriety Movement:  “A lot of people have been traumatized.  We still have that traditional memory of what happened to our people.  We have to heal, get educated and tell our side of the story.   Dr. Skye has been a long time supporter of the Wellbriety Movement and White Bison.


On behalf of the White Bison, Inc. and the Wellbriety Movement, we would like to thank all of the Elders (past and present) for being with us on this Journey.  We appreciate your wisdom, kind words, and your willingness to be there to provide guidance and support.  Thanks also for helping us with our conferences, especially the 2014 Wellbriety Gathering in Denver!  We were certainly all Hooped up!! 

Thank you from all of us and Many Blessings to each of you.


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