Cohen’s Handbook of Federal Indian Law, Case’s Alaska Natives and American Laws


During the ‘New Deal’ administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a man named Felix Cohen worked in the Department of Interior Solicitor’s Office. In this position, Cohen was the primary legal architect of the legislation creating the ‘Indian New Deal,’ also known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA 1934). The IRA was a federal policy that sought to strengthen tribal governments, protect tribal lands and resources, and reduce federal domination of Indian tribes. 

In 1939 Cohen became head of the Indian law survey program which was an effort to compile the federal laws and treaties regarding American Indians. Cohen’s effort resulted in a book published in 1941, called the Handbook of Federal Indian Law. The book was the first time hundreds of years of diverse treaties, congressional statutes, and court decisions were put together to form a comprehensive whole. It was a detailed legal analysis of federal Indian law, for which Cohen is credited with creating the modern field of federal Indian law. The Handbook has been updated and republished several times, as recently as 2005. Felix Cohen’s Handbook is still considered the ‘bible’ of federal Indian law in the United States. Cohen summarized his view on federal Indian law in his quote: “Perhaps the most basic principles of all Indian law supported by a host of decisions…..is the principle that those powers which are lawfully vested in an Indian tribe are not in general delegated powers granted by express acts of Congress, but rather inherent powers of a limited sovereign which has never been extinguished. What is not expressly limited [by Congress] remains within the domain of tribal sovereignty.” 

Alaska is fortunate to have an equivalent to Cohen’s Handbook specific to the laws applying to Alaska Natives. The book is Alaska Natives and American Laws, written by David S. Case and David A. Voluck, and published through the University of Alaska Press. This book is an extraordinary resource for those interested in how federal Indian law applies in Alaska.