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Induction Category & YearGeneral 2012
Home TownSioux Falls, SD
BirthFebruary 24th, 1931
Wood, SD

   James Abourezk
Champion of Excellence

Bio
 

            James G. Abourezk was born in his parents’ home in Wood,

South Dakota, in 1931.  He was the youngest child of Charles T. and Lena Mickel Abourezk, immigrants from a small farming village in Lebanon.  His father, Charles, immigrated to South Dakota in 1898, working as a pack peddler until he

was able to eventually open a general merchandise store in Wood in 1912.<o:p></o:p>

            He had returned to Lebanon (then Syria) in 1907, married Lena Mickel, where two children were born of the marriage— Helen and Charles, Jr. He returned to South Dakota in 1912, telling his new family he would send for them when he was financially able to do so.  Because World War I intervened, and because that part of the Middle East was a central part of the alliance between Germany and Turkey, Lena and the two children, accompanied by her brother, John Mickel, were unable to come to South Dakota until 1920.  It was that year that Charles opened his second general store in Mission, South Dakota, and marked the births of his brother, Tom, sister, Virginia, and Jim as the youngest in the family.<o:p></o:p>

            Jim grew up and attended schools both in Wood and in Mission, bouncing back and forth between parents during WWII when Charlie ran the Mission store and Lena ran the store in Wood.  His older brothers all served in the military during WWII—Charles, Jr. (Chick) fought in the Battle of the Bulge, brother Tom enlisted in the Marine Corps, becoming fighter ace Pappy Boyington’s ground crew chief, and his adopted brother, Albert was an infantryman in the Pacific campaign.  <o:p></o:p>

When he turned 14 Jim worked summers, first on Joe Assman’s farm near Mission and Ed Assman’s farm near Winner, where he met his first wife, Mary Ann.  He served 4 years in the U.S. Navy and upon his return to South Dakota, he and Mary Ann married.  They bore three children—Charlie, Nikki, and Paul.  After working at various jobs—as a rancher, bartender, car salesman, and wholesale grocery salesman, Jim and his family moved to Rapid City where he entered the South Dakota School of Mines, earning a degree in Civil Engineering.<o:p></o:p>

            Jim worked as a civil engineer, first in California, then in South Dakota, working on the Minutemen Missile silos in Western South Dakota.  He went to Law School in Vermillion in 1963, and graduated cum laude in 1966.  He began his law career working as a lawyer for Frank Henderson in Rapid City, later opening his own law office and practicing solo in Rapid City.<o:p></o:p>

            In 1968, Jim became a candidate for South Dakota’s Attorney General, losing the race to Gordon Mydland.  But his interest in politics did not vanish with that loss.  In 1970, he ran for the Second District U.S. House of Representatives seat covering western South Dakota, which he won by less than two percent, the first Democrat to win that seat since the FDR landslides in the 1930s.   In 1972, he ran for the U.S. Senate seat then held by an ailing and longtime Senator Karl Mundt, winning by a margin of 57%.  He was known in the Senate as a champion of people who are either unrepresented or underrepresented, groups such as small farmers, consumers, and American Indians.<o:p></o:p>

            One of his first committee assignments in the U.S. Senate was to the Indian Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Interior (later Energy Committee) Committee.  Soon after receiving that assignment, the siege of Wounded Knee began.  Jim, along with his senior colleague, Senator George McGovern, traveled to Wounded Knee to try to diffuse the situation, which included reports that the militant Indians were holding nine hostages.  Jim had talked by phone to the leaders of the American Indian Movement, obtaining a promise that if he came to Wounded Knee the hostages would be released.  Although it turned out that the hostages were not really being held against their will—they all lived in Wounded Knee—Jim then got agreement from militant leader Russell Means that the confrontation would end on condition that the U.S. government would inform the Indians of the charges against them, as well as the amount of bond to enable them to inform their lawyers.  Jim passed on the information to the FBI agent in charge of the government’s forces—Joseph Trimbach—and he and Senator McGovern returned to Washington, D.C. the next day, believing the siege would end that day.  It went on for 71 more days.            Jim’s signature achievements while in the Senate included the creation of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, (AIPRC) which, after two years of intensive study, produced a series of recommendations to ease the plight of American Indians.  Legislation resulting from the AIPRC included passage of the Indian Self Determination Act, the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the Indian Freedom of Religion Act. <o:p></o:p>

            Jim also led a thirteen day filibuster of the oil industry’s attempt to de-regulate and consequently raise the price of natural gas, but lost in that effort when President Jimmy Carter buckled under the pressure of the oil industry, changing his position to help destroy the filibuster—a blow to consumers nationwide.  He has written and published two books, now out of print, plus dozens of articles on a variety of subjects.<o:p></o:p>

            Jim also led a delegation of South Dakotans along with a combination of basketball teams from the University of South Dakota in Vermillion and the State University in Brookings to Havana, Cuba, to play against the Cuban National basketball team.  The Cuban team then returned to South Dakota to play our teams here.<o:p></o:p>

            Jim also led a number of South Dakotans on tours of the Middle East where his groups met with various leaders of Arab countries, helping to create understanding of the different cultures.<o:p></o:p>

            Following his term in the U.S. Senate, Jim eventually returned to South Dakota to resume his law practice.  He is married to Sanaa Dieb, who is a prominent restaurant owner and chef in Sioux Falls.  They have one daughter, Alya, who is a Junior at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls.  Sanaa is an Agricultural Engineer and holds a Masters’ Degree in Nutrition.  She has written and published three cookbooks, and provides cooking lessons in various venues in Sioux Falls.<o:p></o:p>

Home Town (Sioux Falls, SD)
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