We just lost a good man who is probably now unknown to most Americans—although the nation’s news frequently talks about the Indian Child Welfare Act, which he was instrumental in steering into law in 1978. The New York Times announced his passing:
“James Abourezk, who was elected by South Dakotans as the first Arab American senator, and who used his prominence to support the causes of Palestinians and Native Americans while also pushing for friendlier relations with Cuba and Iran, died on Friday, his 92nd birthday, at his home in Sioux Falls, S.D.”
Abourezk seems all but impossible now. His father immigrated from Lebanon in 1898, worked as a peddler, and then owned and operated two stores on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Both parents were Greek Orthodox Christians, belying the common idea that Arab means Moslem. The Senator was a first-generation American, the son of immigrants.
He was born and grew up on the reservation, and became an influential Democratic lawmaker from South Dakota: Immigrant, Christian Arab, Democrat, South Dakota—it is hard to imagine those terms all coming together in what many now call “identity politics.” Harder to imagine that in the 1970s he championed normal relations with Cuba and the Revolutionary regime of the Ayatollahs in Iran. And that he rejected the notion that the Arabs were the only “terrorists” in the Middle East, referring publicly to “terrorist acts by the Israeli military.” Or that “Palestinians” and “Native Americans” could or should be linked together.
My friend, Diane Josephy Peavey, made a visit to Israel, hosted by Christian Arabs, several years ago. Having lived for decades with her well-known father, Alvin Josephy’s, championing of American Indians, she immediately saw parallels between the Middle East and Indian America. She made more trips to Palestine, and always came away struck by the similarities of the experiences of oppressed Native Americans and oppressed Israeli Arabs. At one point, she hoped to gather those thoughts into a book.
If not a book, maybe the memory of this improbable Arab-American lawmaker from South Dakota will cause her to revive her memories of travel and pen her thoughts for us now. With the current revivals that are occurring across Native America and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, it is time.
Look at the accomplishments in Indian America: Native Americans in government, rights and sovereignty revisited, lands returned. We need like voices of reason and compassion in and a about the Middle East—and not the voices of haranguing politicians and the sounds of rockets and guns.
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photo: US Senate Historical Office