Posts Tagged ‘James Abourezk’

By Christopher Harper

Jim Abourezk, the South Dakota politician who died last weekend at 92, was among the most interesting and engaging people I’ve ever met.

We crossed paths in Wounded Knee during the American Indian Movement takeover in 1973 and later when he tried to get the United States and Cuba to resume diplomatic relations. But I spent a lot of time with him in Iran during the hostage crisis when he represented the Palestinian leadership, who were friendly with the ayatollah.

Later, while researching a book about South Dakota, I’d join him at his daily lunchtime gathering at his wife’s restaurant in downtown Sioux Falls. He even wrote a glowing review of the book.

Abourezk was the first Arab American to serve in the House of Representatives from 1970 to 1973 and then in the U. S. Senate from 1973 to 1979. He decided not to run again, mainly because of family reasons and a difficult campaign he always faced in South Dakota, which usually elected Republicans. Abourezk and his fellow senator, George McGovern, were the exceptions as populist Democrats.

In his 1989 memoir, Advise and Dissent, Abourezk wrote of the Senate: “Where else are your doors opened for you, is your travel all over the world provided free of charge, can you meet with world leaders who would otherwise never let you into their countries, have your bad jokes laughed at and your boring speeches applauded? It’s the ultimate place to have one’s ego massaged, over and over.”

A wonderful storyteller, Abourezk would regale people with stories of his colorful past.

He grew up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where his Lebanese father ran a general store.

Abourezk served four years in the U.S. Navy following World War II. He worked a series of jobs, including as a rancher, blackjack dealer, and judo instructor, and then earned a degree in civil engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines.

His job as a civil engineer took him to California, then back to South Dakota, where he worked on the Minuteman missile silos in the western part of the state. He attended law school and opened a solo practice in Rapid City.

Abourezk ran for South Dakota attorney general in 1968 and lost. But he remained undeterred from entering politics and narrowly won a U.S. House seat in 1970. Two years later, he jumped to the Senate. During his term there, he was a seatmate to both former Sens. Joe Biden and Edward Kennedy.

In the Senate, he opposed U.S. policy in the Middle East, which favored Israel then, and pushed legislation to help Native Americans.

During the vote to give control of the Panama Canal to Panama, the Carter administration barely won the day. In fact, Abourezk joked about how he held back his vote until the administration promised him millions of dollars in aid for South Dakota.

After leaving the Senate, he created the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and had law offices in Washington and Sioux Falls, where he focused on legal matters for Native Americans.

For those of us who had the pleasure of knowing Jim, his presence at his lunchtime get-togethers will be sorely missed.