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James Abourezk
Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee

In office
January 3, 1977 – January 3, 1979
Preceded by Joseph C. O'Mahoney (1947)
Succeeded by John Melcher
United States Senator
from South Dakota

In office
January 3, 1973 – January 3, 1979
Preceded by Karl E. Mundt
Succeeded by Larry Pressler
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
January 3, 1971 – January 3, 1973
Preceded by Ellis Yarnal Berry
Succeeded by James Abdnor
Personal details
Born James George Abourezk
February 24, 1931(1931-02-24) (age 90)
Wood, South Dakota, U.S.
Political party Democratic

James George Abourezk (born February 24, 1931) is an American attorney and politician who had served as a United States Representative and United States Senator from South Dakota. He was the first Greek Orthodox Christian of Lebanese-Antiochite descent to serve in the United States Senate. He was generally viewed as critical of US foreign policy in the Middle-East and North Africa (MENA) area, particularly regarding Palestine and Israel.

A Democrat, he represented South Dakota in the United States Senate from 1973 until 1979. He was the author of the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1978 to try to preserve Indian families and tribal culture, by arranging for placement of Indian children in homes of their cultures, as well as to reunite them with families. It gives preference to tribal courts in custody of Indian children domiciled on reservations, and concurrent but presumptive jurisdiction in cases of children outside the reservation.

Early life and education[edit | edit source]

James George Abourezk was born in Wood, South Dakota, the son of Lena (née Mickel), a homemaker, and Charles Abourezk, an owner of two general stores.[1] His parents were Lebaneses Christians who had immigrated to the United States from the village of Kfeir. He grew up near Wood on the Rosebud Reservation and has lived in South Dakota most of his life.[2]

Between 1948 and 1952, Abourezk served in the United States Navy during the Korean War. After his military service, he earned a degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City in 1961 and a law degree from University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion in 1966. He began a legal practice in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Political career[edit | edit source]

Abourezk joined the Democratic Party and became active in South Dakota. He ran in 1968 for Attorney General of South Dakota but was defeated by Gordon Mydland.[3] Abourezk continued to seek opportunities. He was elected in 1970 as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives, and served from 1971 to 1973.

In 1972 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1973 to 1979. He declined to run for another term. In 1974, TIME magazine named Senator Abourezk as one of the "200 Faces for the Future".[4]

As a senator, Abourezk criticized the Office of Public Safety (OPS), a U.S. agency linked to the USAID and the CIA, and which provided training to foreign police forces. Officers they trained were used to suppress civilians in several countries in Central and South America during a period of military governments, dirty wars, and social disruption.

Abourezk also was instrumental in the creation of both the American Indian Policy Review Commission and the Select Committee on Indian Affairs. Deeply interested in representing the tribes in Congress to work toward better federal relations, he chaired the Policy Review Commission the entire time it existed. He took the gavel as chair of the Indian Affairs Committee from its creation in 1977 to 1979, when he retired.

His signature legislation was the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA, 1978), designed to protect Indian children and families from being torn apart. Indian children have been removed by state social agencies from their families and placed in foster care or adoption at a disproportionately high rate, and usually placed with non-Indian families. This both deprived the children of their culture and threatened the very survival of the tribes. This legislation was intended to provide a federal standard that emphasized the needs of Indian children to be raised in their own cultures, and gave precedence to tribal courts for decisions about children domiciled on the reservation, as well as concurrent but presumptive jurisdiction with state courts for Indian children off the reservation.[5] He also authored and passed the Indian Self Determination Act, which provided Indian tribes with greater autonomy. The BIA made grants to the tribes but they could manage contracts and funds to control their own destiny. That legislation also reduced the direct influence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the tribes.

Abourezk was an early supporter of a National initiative. With fellow Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-OR), introduced an amendment to support more direct democracy. However, this initiative failed.

In 1978, Abourezk chose not to run for re-election. He was succeeded in office by Republican Larry Pressler, with whom he has had a long-running political feud.[6]

Advocacy[edit | edit source]

External video
Booknotes interview with Abourezk on Advise and Dissent, March 25, 1990, C-SPAN

Following his retirement in 1980, Abourezk founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a grassroots civil rights organization. In 1989, he published his Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate (ISBN 1-55652-066-2). He is the co-author, along with Hyman Bookbinder, of Through Different Eyes: Two Leading Americans — a Jew and an Arab — Debate U. S. Policy in the Middle East (1987), (ISBN 0917561392).

Since his retirement from the Senate, Abourezk has worked as a lawyer and writer in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He has continued to be active in supporting tribal sovereignty and culture. In July 2015 he spoke out against a suit filed against the ICWA by the Goldwater Institute of Arizona; it was one of three suits seeking to overturn the act. Some states and adoption groups, who make money off adoptions, have opposed any prohibitions on their placements of Indian children. Abourezk has considered this his signature legislation and the new rules instrumental in protecting Indian children and preserving tribal families. He noted that the late Senator Barry Goldwater, his friend and colleague, had voted for the legislation in 1977 and had often consulted with him in tribal matters.[5]

Huffington Post writer James Zogby in 2014 praised Abourezk as a "bold and courageous former Senator" for protesting to the FBI after the ABSCAM operation and calling all Arab-Americans to "reclaim the right to defend and define their heritage."[7]

See also[edit | edit source]

  • List of Arab and Middle-Eastern Americans in the United States Congress

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Ellis Yarnal Berry
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from South Dakota's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
James Abdnor
Party political offices
Preceded by
Donn Wright
Democratic nominee for U.S. Senator from South Dakota
(Class 2)

Succeeded by
Don Barrett
United States Senate
Preceded by
Karl E. Mundt
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from South Dakota
Served alongside: George McGovern
Succeeded by
Larry Pressler
Title last held by
Joseph C. O'Mahoney
Chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee
Succeeded by
John Melcher

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