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Former Senator Jim Abourezk dies at 92

Jim Abourezk (file)

Former U.S. Senator and famed South Dakota politician Jim Abourezk has died.

His family said he died on Friday, Feb. 24, the day of his 92nd birthday. He had recently been released from the hospital and placed under hospice care at his Sioux Falls home.

Abourezk served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1971-1973 and in the U.S. Senate from 1973-1979. He was the first Greek Orthodox Christian of Lebanese descent to serve in the US Senate. He was critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and was also known as a champion of people who are unrepresented or underrepresented like small farmers, consumers, and American Indians. 

Abourezk was the youngest son of Charles of Lena Abourezk, who were immigrants from a small farming village in Lebanon. Charles immigrated to South Dakota in 1898 where he worked as a pack peddler until he opened a general merchandise store in Wood in 1912. A second general store was opened in Mission in 1920. Jim grew up and attended schools both in Wood and Mission as each parent ran a store. 

“I had a good life. I ran free, nobody paid attention to me and did what I wanted to. Much to the regret of my parents," Abourezk said in a previous interview with SDPB. "We ran a store and we never wanted for food or anything. I saw a great deal of poverty back in those days that I witnessed, and I don’t think I fully understood it when I was that age – but it turned out I later became aware of what was happening, and I decided I would do what I can to end suffering and poverty if I could.” 

The former Senator spoke with Karl Gehrke during an interview in November of 2013. He was discussing the re-release of his memoir “Advise and Dissent” which was first published in 1989.

Abourezk graduated from the School of Mines with an engineering degree. But he said he found engineering to be “boring,” so he went to law school two years later. He began his legal practice in Rapid City in 1966. 

Abourezk ran for attorney general in 1968 and lost to Gordan Mydland. He was elected to Congress in 1970 and served one term. In 1972 he was elected to the US Senate where he again served one term.

One of his first committee assignments was to the Indian Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Interior. Soon after that assignment the siege of Wounded Knee began. Abourezk along with fellow Senator George McGovern worked to help defuse the situation with American Indian Movement leader Russell Means. Abourezk’s signature work in the Senate focused on Native American policies.

"First of all I created a commission to study Indian policy and I was chairman of that commission. I had about 200 staff people working, and we pulled together all of the Indian policy throughout the United States and we put out a report. Original documents are down at the University of South Dakota Library in my cache of documents down there," Abourezk said in the 2013 interview. "We had several hundred proposals to change Indian policy. Not very many of them were passed. The administration refused. The ones that were proposed for the Congress to do, we passed them all. So, we got a lot of work done during that time. We passed the Indian Child Welfare Act, we passed the Indian Self Determination Act, the Indian Freedom of Religion Act. Things like that. "

Abourezk also led a 13-day filibuster against the oil industry’s attempt to de-regulate and consequently raise the price of natural gas. He said he knew and understood the rules of the Senate better than most and was able to use that in this filibuster.  

After his retirement from politics, he cofounded and was the first chairperson of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which advocated for the civil and human rights of Arab Americans.  He continued to advocate for the Indian Child Welfare Act known, as ICWA, and appeared as a witness in court cases and testified before Congress. Under ICWA, Native children removed from their homes are placed with relatives, their tribe, or other Native families. The purpose is to keep children close to their own heritage. 

In 2013 he spoke at the Great Plains ICWA Summit called by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Rapid City. It was estimated more than 700 Native children were removed from their home. 

"I would recommend that the United States government sue the state of South Dakota for violating the law. That is the only entity strong enough to stand against this Republican establishment in Pierre," he said.

The Indian Child Welfare Act is undergoing a legal challenge before the U.S. Supreme court and is expected to be decided sometime this year.  

Abourezk authored two books, including "Advise and Dissent: A Memoir of South Dakota," as well as "The US Senate and Through Different Eyes, a Dialogue on Issues in the Middle East. "

Jim Abourezk is survived by his wife, Sanaa, and five children, many grandchildren and great- grandchildren. 

Cara Hetland is the Director of Radio and Journalism Content for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.