Singer Helps Update Definitive Indian Law Book
|In his office, Professor Joseph Singer '81 displays previous editions of Cohen's handbook.|
In January, the Oneida Indian Nation made a $3 million gift to HLS, ensuring that the study and teaching of federal Indian law would be a permanent fixture at the school. But at least one member of the law school faculty has been immersed in the field for the better part of 15 years.
Professor Joseph Singer '81 has been working, along with other scholars, to update Felix Cohen's "Handbook of Federal Indian Law," considered the definitive text on federal Indian law in the United States. Singer has been busy writing and editing sections of the revised edition, which will include the work of 35 different authors. He also sits on a seven-member executive committee that met last year at HLS to rework the outline of the book, assign sections for writing and editing, and determine the book's tone and intellectual framework. If all goes as planned, the updated edition will be published in 2004.
The book was first printed in 1941, after Cohen, assistant solicitor in the Interior Department in the Roosevelt administration, was asked to write a guide to federal Indian law. Cohen's book was the first systematic treatment of federal Indian law and reflected his legal realist outlook, as well as the New Deal-era policy of revitalizing tribal sovereignty.
According to Singer, throughout U.S. history, government policies toward American Indian nations have shifted many times, from respect for tribal sovereignty to wholesale assault.
"I view the project as very important," says Singer. "Federal Indian law concerns the most fundamental questions about the origins and current status of property rights in the United States, the meaning of sovereignty in a federal system, and the ways in which the law has both supported colonialism and sought to minimize the injustices associated with conquest."
Since its initial publication, Cohen's book has been revised several times. The last edition, published in 1982, is being updated to incorporate dramatic changes in federal Indian law that have occurred in the past 20 years, and to better reflect Cohen's original philosophy.
The new edition will also include criticisms of recent Supreme Court decisions, which, according to Singer, "have limited tribal sovereignty in ways that have been quite damaging to tribal interests and ignored fundamental principles that have historically guided the Court in the field."
Singer also says there are widespread misconceptions about tribal government, and it is important that the general public, and lawyers in particular, are made aware that federal law recognizes tribes as sovereign nations.
"Ten years ago, we went to war in Iraq to prevent a powerful country from invading and absorbing a less powerful one," he says. "Attacks on tribal sovereignty are inconsistent with basic American values."