Originally published in Native Sun News in September 2011.
Applause and a constitutional crisis broke out as Ida Ashes, the new vice-chairwoman of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, was sworn into office on Wednesday, September 14, during a meeting of the tribe’s General Council. Two minutes later, at 3:32 pm central time, Ashes swore in the new chairman, Thurmond Cournoyer (shown left). Both had won their offices in a landslide during the tribe’s September 1 biennial election.
By swearing in the new officers, the Ihanktonwan, whose ruling government body is the entire voting membership of the community, asserted the supremacy of their General Council. Under the Yankton’s non-Indian Reorganization Act constitution, the large group runs the show, but delegates day-to-day business to a smaller group, the Business and Claims Committee (B&C), composed of the tribal chair, vice-chair, secretary, treasurer, and five members who are elected at large.
In recent years, the B&C under outgoing chairman Robert Cournoyer has assumed increasing authority, and the General Council was fed up and wanted to seat his successor as soon as possible. “No way,” said Robert Cournoyer. “I don’t take kindly to being pushed out. There are issues I’m working on, and I plan to be at my desk until my last day in office.” In any case, September 30 is the usual date for the handover of power, he said.
Incoming chair Thurmond Cournoyer disputed this, saying new officers may be sworn at in any time in September, at the pleasure of the General Council. “On numerous other occasions newly elected officers of the B & CC have been sworn in immediately upon certification of the election results,” he said.
Tribal member Izzy Zephier asked a few former officials when they had taken office. “They each remembered taking their oaths a day or two after being voted in,” he said.
The applause had barely died down on September 14 before rumors began flying about a “takeover” of the tribal offices, presumably by the new administration’s supporters, who have expressed particular dissatisfaction with Robert Cournoyer’s determination to eke out a few more weeks in office and, during that time, find a way to pay himself and fellow officials severance for being voting out of office.
“There’s a precedent,” said Robert Cournoyer. “Our outgoing officers have received severance since 1988. Other tribes pay it as well.” It was not clear where the tribe would get the money, which may amount to as much as $100,000 to be shared among the nine exiting B&C members.
“Several of our programs, such as Housing, need to reimburse the tribe for bills it paid on their behalf,” Robert Cournoyer said. “There are sizeable chunks owed the tribe. But it’s not up to me; it’s up to our treasurer, Leo O’Connor, to figure it out.”
The gossip about the purported “takeover” morphed and escalated, seemingly via Facebook and text message, according to several tribal members. On Thursday, this reporter was told that a caravan—and then busloads—of armed elders were headed for the tribal offices, which are in the administration building of Marty Indian School. There never existed even a mention of such a thing—of taking over anything, of even traveling to the tribal offices,” said Thurmond Cournoyer.
Nevertheless, Robert Cournoyer put police and school security guards on alert and ordered that the school’s doors be locked, so students could go neither in nor out. One child was locked out of the school, according to tribal member and community leader Sharon Drapeau, and had to take refuge at a teacher’s home.
The “lockdown” reportedly upset parents. It infuriated Drapeau. “It was such a terrible and upsetting lie,” she said, her voice shaking with anger. “The idea that we grandparents could be accused of doing anything—anything!—to frighten or endanger our takojas is horrible. It’s outrageous!”
After about an hour and a half, nothing resembling an insurrection by senior citizens, or anyone else, had materialized, and the doors were unlocked, according to the school’s facilities manager. “Things were quickly back to normal and continue to be perfectly normal today [Friday],” he said.
Controversies over the severance payments continue, however. The tribe’s constitution requires that the General Council approve all compensation for B&C officials. “We did not approve the severance payments, which are not budgeted,” Drapeau said. “We certainly can’t waste funds like that.”
Said Thurmond Cournoyer, who campaigned on a platform that included curbing wasteful spending and transparency for government actions: “The tribe is in dire financial straits, and we need to protect our assets from imprudent actions such as the unauthorized severance payments.”
He also expressed dismay over the lame-duck B&C’s recent firing of the tribe’s chief judge. In terminating the jurist, Robert Cournoyer’s administration nullified tribal-court decisions made after August 26, 2011. “I’m very concerned that the outgoing B&C is trying to manipulate our judicial system for its own ends,” said Thurmond Cournoyer. “We must all respect our laws.” He called the manner in which the firing took place illegal under the tribe’s constitution and supported the General Council’s recent decision to reinstate the judge for 90 days. For his part, Robert Cournoyer described the termination as a valid personnel action.
For years, ordinary Yanktons have worried about an increasingly imperial B&C. “In Ihanktonwan territory, we desperately need transparency,” said Drapeau. “We need to know what our officials are doing. The B&C usually met in ‘executive session,’ which meant no one knew what was going on. When we asked for minutes, they were rarely provided.”
When Thurmond Cournoyer does take over, presumably on September 30, one of his first actions will be to order an audit of the tribe’s books, he said. In an open letter to tribal members, he vowed to protect them “from waste, misappropriation and oppression by their own officials [as well as] from oppression by outside entities that are continually attempting to circumvent our sovereignty and treaty rights.”
He ended his letter, “I truly expect and desire that the Ihanktonwan Oyate will begin to work together again as our ancestors did for the best interest of all and not just a few.”
c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.
c. Stephanie Woodard; photograph by Stephanie Woodard.