Former South Dakota Dem Sen. James Abourezk, first Arab American in Congress, dead at age 92

 February 25, 2023

James Abourezk, a former South Dakota congressman and senator who was the first Arab-American elected to Congress, passed away on his 92nd birthday on Friday, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported.

His death was confirmed by his eldest son, Charlie, who revealed that his father had been released from a local hospital on Wednesday and placed in hospice care at his home in Sioux Falls and was surrounded by his wife, Sanaa, and other family members in his final days.

A man of many talents

According to the Associated Press, Abourezk was the son of Lebanese immigrants who was born and raised on South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation where his parents ran a general store.

When he came of age, he served four years in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War era and, upon returning home, worked a series of odd jobs before earning a degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines. That degree initially led to work in California but he soon returned to South Dakota and worked on the nuclear Minuteman missile silos located in the state.

Abourezk also obtained a law degree and was a practicing attorney in Rapid City for a time while he mounted an unsuccessful run for state attorney general in 1968. Having fallen short there, though, he ran for Congress in 1970 as a Democrat and served one term in the House before he ran for and was elected as a U.S. senator from South Dakota in 1972.

Senate term full of achievements

Abourezk also served only one term in the Senate, where he was a populist focused on addressing the needs of consumers, small farmers, and Native Americans. It was his work on behalf of Native Americans that garnered the most recognition for his achievements.

He was credited with helping to establish and serve as the first chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and also helped create the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which led to major reforms in the federal government's policies toward Native American tribes and culture.

That included legislation like the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act, which helped ensure that orphaned Native American children would be adopted and raised by fellow Native Americans.

As a senator, alongside the late fellow South Dakota Sen. George McGovern (D), Abourezk also helped negotiate an end to an armed standoff with Native American militants at Wounded Knee in 1973, and also led a delegation from the state to communist Cuba for a basketball game in the interest of improving relations.

He was also an outspoken critic of both natural gas deregulation as well as U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Israel -- which likely cost him allies in Washington D.C. and led to his decision to not seek re-election after his single term in the Senate.

Advocate for Native and Arab Americans

After his time in the Senate, Abourezk returned to practicing law, with a focus on Native American affairs, but also remained involved in Washington D.C. politics to an extent, and founded and chaired the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. In 2012, he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame and heralded for his legacy.

Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), who began his career as an aide to Abourezk, praised his former boss as "courageous" and "outspoken" in his passions and, per the AP, said in a statement, "I give him great credit for his advocacy of human rights, especially of the need to recognize the Arab American community in the United States. He was a lone voice for many years."

"Sen. Abourezk dedicated his life to serving others," South Dakota Democratic Party Chair Randy Seiler said in a statement, according to local outlet KELO. "That service led to a lasting legacy that continues to impact the lives of so many in South Dakota, across the country, and around the world. We are all fortunate he led such a long and impactful life, and his presence here in South Dakota will be sorely missed."

According to the AP, Abourezk is survived by his third wife Sanaa and their daughter Alya, as well as three children from a previous marriage -- Charlie, Nikki, and Paul -- along with a step-daughter, Chelsea, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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