Senator James Abourezk passed away on Friday. He was 92 years old. He was the first chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. In that role, he was the lead Senator pushing for ICWA, and held hearings for over three years, taking testimony on what was happening to Native families across the country. He sponsored S.1214, the Senate bill that led to the House bill which became ICWA. He held the 1974 Hearings, as well as the 1977 and 1978 Hearings. NARF has collected his letters, where he expressed unreserved support for Native children, families, and tribes. Here is the opening paragraph of one of his letters on the eve of voting:
Throughout the course of this legislation the authors of this bill have been charged with having placed the interests of Indian tribes and the parents of Indian children above the interests of the child itself. I have always rejected this charge. The central concern of this legislation is the welfare of Indian children. Both the Senate and the House version are based on the assumption and indeed the finding that the interests of Indian children are best served by preserving their relationship with their natural family whenever possible, and when that is not possible, placing them with a family or in a setting which shares their own cultural values and heritage.
ICWA was a result of the hard work of so many people, but Senator Abourezk was instrumental in not only its passage, but in preserving the testimony of Native parents, leaders, and elders about the time before ICWA. His kindness to those who were testifying about horrible treatment they received is evident in the record, as was his indignation at that treatment. He did all of this in a single term in the Senate, and was also instrumental in ISDEAA and AIRFA. From the Washington Post:
Mr. Abourezk represented South Dakota for single terms in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate during the 1970s, where he exemplified a brand of Democratic politician known as Prairie Populist. He fought passionately — and with humor — for those he felt were the downtrodden: farmers, consumers and Native American people.
Mr. Abourezk was the first chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and successfully pressed for the American Indian Policy Review Commission. It produced a comprehensive review of federal policy with American Indian tribes and sparked the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the Indian Child Welfare Act — a landmark piece of legislation meant to cut down on the alarming rate at which Native American children were taken from their homes and placed with White families.
I never got to meet the Senator, but it is still very difficult for me to put into words the impact of his single Senate term. I can’t help but think that his leadership in the Senate, with his unreserved support for Native families and tribes, is especially needed now.