Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or nickname?
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As chairman of our tribe, I am the executive of the tribe and preside over the Business and Claims Committee and the General Council. I am also the main signatory on behalf of the tribe. I travel to a lot of places to do business for the tribe. I try my best to be a role model for the younger generation.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I grew up on the reservation and went to school at a Catholic boarding school, very strict. My father moved to Detroit in 1953. I spent my summer in Detroit and the school year on the reservation till 1959. I joined the Navy at 17 years old in 1961—did 3 years, 11 months, and got out one day before my 21st birthday, honorable discharge. I am not a career politician but got involved with tribal politics in my later years after I retired as a journeyman electrician. In the meantime I raised eight kids and seven grandchildren.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I would have to say my father, Harold Cournoyer, was my mentor. He had his faults, but he was hardworking and honest. He raised eleven kids, and we all turned out OK. He passed on to me his work ethic.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so who?
I am a direct descendant of Chief Wabasha of the Mde Wakanton Sioux Tribe and also Chief Smutty Bear of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.
Where is your tribe located?
The Yankton (Ihanktonwan) once roamed over 11 million acres in southeastern South Dakota and northwestern Iowa. We are now located in southeastern South Dakota along the Missouri River. Our reservation's original boundaries, established by the 1858 treaty, had 487 thousand acres. As of today we have about 40 thousand acres—a checkerboard—within our boundaries.
Where was your tribe originally from?
The Sioux—Lakota, Nakota, Dakota—were from the forested area now known as Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Do the Yankton Sioux have a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Our tribe (oyate, or nation) has a constitutional type of government with a nine-member Business and Claims Committee (B&CC) and a General Council. The B&CC conduct the day-to-day business of the tribe. The General Council has the final say on all tribal matters. We do not have a chief system or a tiospaye system anymore. Tiospayes are large families.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
The Yanktons (Ihanktonwan) consider themselves the friendly people. We tried to keep peace during the Minnesota uprising of 1862, and we met with Lewis and Clark and warned them some of the other Sioux Tribes were not so friendly.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
We have approximately 8600 enrolled members, with 3500 currently residing on the Yankton Sioux reservation.
What are the criteria to become a member?
To be enrolled you have to be one-quarter total Indian blood and of that quarter, one-eighth must be Yankton blood, no adoptions.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Our language is dying out. Approximately 2 percent of our people are speakers or understand when spoken to.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Our only economic enterprise is the Ft. Randall Casino Hotel and Travel Plaza, located in Pickstown, South Dakota.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
We have two tribal powwows annually. The Ft. Randall Casino Contest Powwow takes place the third weekend in June, and the Traditional Powwow takes place in Lake Andes, South Dakota, the first weekend in August.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
We attract a lot of hunters—deer, pheasant, and turkey. The Missouri River is also a big attraction—water recreation and fishing. We also have our powwow and casino. The Yankton Sioux Tribe also owns a small herd of buffalo; we sell permits to members and nonmembers to hunt buffalo.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The elected leaders are chosen every two years. The entire Business and Claims Committee, comprised of four officers and five members, is elected during the same year.
How often does your tribal council meet?
Our B&CC meets two times a week, sometimes more when the need arises. Our General Council meets whenever the general public has an issue. We have one General Council meeting a year devoted to passing a budget.
How does your tribe deal with the U.S. as a sovereign nation?
We rely heavily on government funding, but we do government-to-government business.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
My message to the Ihanktonwan Oyate is to protect our
culture, get involved in language preservation, and remember our ancestors
fought hard to get us where we are today.
Other interviews in this series:
Ben Shelley, president of the Navajo Nation
Councilman Jonathan Perry, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
John Sirois, Chairman, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation
Series banner, from left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.