Courtesy of Chris Huber/Mitchell Daily Republic
Thurman Cournoyer Sr. (right) and Ida Ashes Brown after taking the oath as chairman and vice chairwoman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. October 2011, Wagner, South Dakota.

Thurman Cournoyer Sr., Chairman: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
July 11, 2013


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 the Native peoples today.

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?

Owong Waste′—Handsome.

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 11 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 487,000 acres. As of today we have about 40,000 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.


To read the full interview with Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Thurman Cournoyer Sr. visit the NMAI series here.