Post Date: November 23, 2004

A team of Indian law experts met recently at Harvard Law School to finalize updates to Felix Cohen’s landmark “Handbook of Federal Indian Law.” Scholars consider the Cohen handbook–published in 1941–to be the leading text on federal Indian law. Cohen wrote the first edition while serving as an assistant solicitor in the Interior Department during the Roosevelt administration.

The new edition is expected to be published in March.

Editors working on the new edition say there are several important reasons to update the book, including recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions curbing tribal sovereignty, and the dramatic expansion of tribal gaming and commerce in the United States.

“The new edition will explain and clarify the federal law regulating relations among Indian nations and federal and state governments, while elaborating the basis and justifications for continued recognition of tribal sovereignty,” said Professor Joseph Singer ’81, a principal editor and writer of the new volume. “It will also criticize the continued denial of certain basic rights to Indian tribes.”

According to Nell Jessup Newton, dean of the University of Connecticut School of Law and head editor of the new edition, entire chapters will be dedicated to specific changes in U.S. law, including the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the 1982 Indian Child Welfare Act.

“It is vital that both newcomers to the field and seasoned professionals have an up-to-date treatise that will help them sort out what is settled, where the gray areas are, and what gaps and conflicts exist in this complex area of law,” said Newton.

Singer believes the book is also relevant to many current international conflicts that have parallels in federal Indian law. “The meaning and extent of sovereignty is important to the building of democracy in Afghanistan, the recognition and shaping of tribal sovereignty under the new South African constitution, the decision to break up the former Yugoslavia and the desire for independence in Chechnya,” said Singer.

Professor Rennard Strickland, a Cherokee and Osage Indian who is currently teaching law at Syracuse University, said the Cohen handbook is the only legal treatise whose revision has been mandated by an act of Congress. “This treatise has served as the primary source document and analytical foundation on issues about the rights of Native people for more than 60 years,” said Strickland, who was the head editor of the 1982 edition.

In addition to holding two meetings at HLS, the editors gathered at the University of New Mexico, the University of Connecticut, UCLA and the University of Washington. Dean Elena Kagan ’86 met with the group at HLS in September and has provided funding for the project. “Federal Indian law is an important and rapidly expanding field, and I believe Harvard has an obligation to support research and teaching in this area,” said Kagan. “It’s gratifying to know that we could play a role in the updating of the Cohen handbook, which is such a critical text.”

In 2002, HLS received a gift from Ray Halbritter ’90, a leader of the Oneida Indian Nation, to establish a professorship dedicated to American Indian law. The Oneida Indian Nation Professorship is one of the first faculty chairs of its kind in the country.