ATFL Mourns the Loss of Senator James Abourezk, 1931-2023.

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

ATFL mourns the loss of Senator James Abourezk, the first Arab American Senator from the state of South Dakota and a prominent American of Lebanese descent. As a former high-ranking Senator, attorney, and veteran, he was a man who was driven by his commitment to his values – even when they were not shared by others. As Ralph Nader describes, “It was not that he was so honest, so down to earth, or so engaging with friend and foe alike. Rather, it was his willingness to be a minority of one pressing into visibility the plight of the forgotten, the oppressed and the excluded.”

Representing the State of South Dakota in the US Senate from 1973 to 1979 and in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1973, Senator Abourezk was well known for his advocacy on behalf of Native Americans and is attributed to the establishment of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which laid the foundation for laws such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. He also founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and fostered a legacy that was critical of anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination.

ATFL President Ed Gabriel and Senator Abourezk became fast friends when they first met in 1977, meeting on issues concerning American Indians. Gabriel had just become Executive Director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal organization dedicated to the sovereignty of tribal resources, and Abourezk had just become Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. “We immediately bonded as close friends the day we met,” Gabriel recalled. “Two American kids from rural America, sons of Lebanese immigrants, fighting to protect the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian tribes. Jim’s fight for what was right will never be forgotten.”

Senator Abourezk was born in 1931 to two Lebanese immigrants who settled in the Great Plains around the turn of the century, and was raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota. He passed away in Sioux Falls at the age of 92.

ATFL offers its solemn condolences to the family and friends of Senator Abourezk, and to the individuals and communities who benefited from the Senator’s tireless advocacy on their behalf.