Aught Coyhis

The other day I overheard an educator ask a young student what he wanted to be when he grew up. This is a question that is asked often. This is a question that you probably have asked yourself at least once during your lifetime. As I grow older and find myself searching for life’s answers I realize how unfair a question that is to ask a young child. When I went to school I always admired the students that would say "I’m going to be a doctor and I’m enrolled in pre-med". Or how about the folks that become preachers? Was it divine intervention that gave them the vision to see the future as to what there vocation would be? Most of us, I think, even though we pursue our goals, will have a job fall on our laps. Do we really set out to be a carpet salesmen or casino managers? Often we take opportunities given us and become the best at the profession that we can be.

Having said all this, I’d like to introduce to you a man you probably already know…a Mr. Aught Coyhis. He is a member of our tribe that took what was presented to him and not only made a life for himself but made contributions to the lives around him.

When Aught’s life started, the idea of being a soldier in Europe and being surrounded by the enemy, locked down for 5 days because of heavy fog, probably wasn’t a life’s ambition. I don’t think he set out as a youngster to be a tribal chairman and stand in front of a congressional hearing fighting to secure land that had been promised, decades earlier, in a bill passed by FDR. I can say with certainty that he never set out to be an alcoholic.

Working in the logging industry, Mr. Coyhis was drafted to serve his country in WW II. Stationed in England on D-Day, Aught recalls the thunder of all the planes flying overhead and thinking the end of the world was near. He made it to Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, twenty days after the hell that has been recently portrayed in the Steven Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan". Aught was a trained corpsman, which is the Army version of EMT, emergency medical technician. We can only imagine the scenes this decorated soldier saw, as Aught says no movie he has seen comes close to the image of battle. Attached to General Patton’s army, Aught actually crossed the Rhine River and set foot in Germany. The young corporal Coyhis was honorably discharged, wearing four bronze battle stars looking to start the family that was interrupted by two years of war.

Years later, Aught was once again called to serve. Serving this time for his tribe. He was elected and arose to the title of Tribal Chairman. On his agenda was the Farm Securities Act, passed in the thirties but forgotten because of war and bureaucracy. The act guaranteed land to be set aside as federal reservations. Chairman Coyhis selected delegates to represent the Mohican people for this congressional hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives. The picture of this delegation is in the Arvid Miller Library. Many of these delegates have since passed away, but I challenge you to find out who the survivors are and thank them. The delegations hard work and dedication, lead by Coyhis, increased the land base of our reservation from around 2,000 acres to over 13,000 acres.

Through all of these trials and victories one nemesis always lingered. That enemy was alcohol. I’ve heard alcohol referred to as "Custer’s revenge". When put in this light we can comprehend how destructive alcohol can be in the native community. This battle with alcohol, again, was a challenge Aught championed face-to-face. He went to countless seminars, workshops, and classes to gain a better understanding of the ravages of the bottle. Working to become a counselor of alcohol abuse, Aught started A.A. groups and allowed people into his own house to provide safe haven for anyone who was searching for answers. He is actually recognized as the first Native American AODA counselor. A comment made by Mr. Coyhis to me is that in the time he has been sober he has learned to appreciate people and relationships more than falsity and materialism. He has made many friends over the years by his willingness to help those in need.

Bob Jones, an Ojibwa tribal member in the Lac Courte Oreilles that works as a psychotherapist for his tribe said of Coyhis, "he is one of the most dedicated people I know". Mr. Jones recalled various occasions when Aught would wake to a phone call, in the middle of the night, and with no question run to the aid of the caller.

On June 3rd Aught Coyhis will celebrate 53 years of sobriety, and from what I can gather, a large amount of friends will be in attendance. Listening to the stories of taking life’s opportunity and imagining the trials this man has overcome, I admit that on June 3rd I also will be counted as one of his friends and I too will be celebrating.