‘A Passion for the True and Just’ by Alice Beck Kehoe

Alice Beck Kehoe. A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal. 256pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014. $55.00 (hardcover), $24.95 (paperback), $24.95 (e-book)

The Indian New Deal—the name given to the series of policies that shifted Native American-US relations from one of allotment[1] to limited tribal recognition in the 1930s and 1940s—lies at the center of Alice Kehoe’s A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal. However, the book is more than a rehashing of the debates surrounding the implementation and legacies of the Indian New Deal. On one level, A Passion for the True and Just is an account of the relatively unexamined role of Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen in designing key pieces of Indian New Deal legislation and texts. On another level, the book has the more ambitious goal of “[juxtaposing] two histories seldom merged, that of the Indian New Deal and Jews in twentieth-century America” (8). Through the life and work of the Cohens, Kehoe details the ways in which Jewish intellectuals significantly shaped the construction of this “turning point in colonialism” (163).

The book’s opening chapters provide basic content and context for the Indian New Deal and its significance in US-Indian relations. These chapters are more than mere historical overviews of an “about-face in US policy” (9). Kehoe argues that this political metamorphosis cannot be (but often has been) understood apart from the life and work of the Cohens and the “cabal” of Jewish thinkers that inflected the New Deal government. These individuals, Kehoe suggests, offered a “counterweight” to the romanticism and paternalism of John Collier—the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, the public face of the Indian New Deal, and a both much adored and much maligned object of analysis for American and Native American historians (59). An important sub-theme here, made more evident in later chapters, is the “indirect influence” of the eminent Jewish anthropologist Franz Boas (12), who served as Lucy’s professor during her undergraduate and graduate studies at Barnard College and who was a family acquaintance of Felix.

Boas’s influence is most explicitly argued for as Kehoe homes in on the construction of The Handbook of Indian Law. Originally commissioned by the Interior Department, the Handbook portrayed Native American groups as possessing “inherent powers of a limited sovereignty which has never been extinguished” (93-94). This inherent sovereignty, according to the Handbook, is acknowledged in treaties forged between Indian groups and the US. Kehoe argues that this text, authored by Felix with Lucy providing vital research for the chapter on treaties, “fundamentally reflects Franz Boas’s articulation of historical particularism, that is, recognition that every society has its own, long history of adaptations to environments and societal contracts” (91).

Kehoe proceeds to take a somewhat circuitous path through the roots of these cornerstone elements of the Indian New Deal. At the same time, she leads a more general meditation on the experience of Jewish Americans during the 1930s and a more specific discussion of Felix and Lucy’s exposure to the living conditions of Native Americans during the construction and implementation of the Indian Reorganization Act. Sensitive to the experiences of his parents’ generation, Felix found that the historical injustices done to Native Americans bore a striking resemblance to the trials and tribulations of his own people. Looking at the regulated and destitute life on the reservation and under US plenary authority, Felix drew a comparison between the plight of Native Americans and that of Jews living in czarist Russia’s pale of settlement (135). Kehoe suggests more general points of resonance between the two groups including similar struggles to retain collective identities distinct from “mainstream Christian society” (135). More ambitiously, Kehoe argues that Cohen’s work on the Indian New Deal and his contribution to federal Indian law were shaped by “Judaism’s traditional mitzvah”—“a personal moral obligation, literally commandment, to perform good deeds” (63, 196). However, it was out in the field negotiating constitutions with actual tribal representatives where Felix and Lucy began to question Collier’s romanticism as they learned to identify the longstanding colonial, racial, and coercive dimensions woven throughout federal Indian policy (142-45).

The closing chapters contemplate Felix’s post-governmental work with the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana. They explore the ways in which his legacy manifests indirectly in ongoing discussions of Indigenous sovereignty in the US, and the resonance between science, philosophy, and law as practiced by other Jewish Americans. In these chapters, Kehoe credits Felix with creatively “[accommodating] Indian values within US domination” through his articulation of Native American sovereignty. While recognizing that such “sovereignty” remains “dependent in the final analysis upon European constructions of admissible statuses and enforceable rights,” Kehoe concludes that Cohen’s reframing of Indian status from an inferior race to a distinctive socio-political group can be understood as an enduring “Boasian coup,” which made Felix “the most effective advocate for Indian sovereign self-determination” (161-62, 177).

Kehoe contributes numerous keen insights regarding anthropology’s obfuscated role in the formation of the Indian New Deal and notions of “inherent sovereignty.” Others (including Collier himself) have argued that anthropologists had little substantial involvement in the formation of the Indian New Deal.[2] In contrast, Kehoe delineates a complex genealogy of influence that ties Boasian anthropology to the Interior Department through the Cohens. This geneaology is not without its problems. For instance, the characterization of the Handbook as an example of Boas’s “historical particularism” generates more questions than it answers. To begin with, the term (i.e., historical particularism) was coined by Marvin Harris—not Boas.[3] Moreover, the historicist current in Boas’s work is more often a point of debate than a disciplinary truism.[4] If Lucy and Felix’s view of American Indians and their standing in the US is in fact mindful of history, should this be attributed to Boas (directly or indirectly)? Despite such questions, Kehoe’s contribution to the history of anthropology in the Indian New Deal widens the field of investigation beyond typical objects of analysis (e.g., the Applied Anthropology Unit of the Office of Indian Affairs).

Another of the book’s major contributions, which, it is hoped, will generate discussion across disciplines, is Kehoe’s treatment of the development of the notion of “inherent sovereignty.” Contemporary Indigenous-rights debates tend to portray sovereignty as the autonomous control over all aspects of Indigenous life.[5] In US-specific debates, Indian sovereignty is understood to have existed since time immemorial, acknowledged in (and not constructed by) treaties forged between Indian groups and the US government. This understanding typically ignores the history of the concept of sovereignty (closely tied to the rise of the nation-state in Europe) and the fact that treaties were often bureaucratically expedient tools of conquest that reconfigured (or even created) tribes for the purposes of expanding and fortifying settler sovereignty and nationhood.[6] It also fails to recognize the ways in which Indigenous sovereignty as a political status has been formulated and reformulated through settler courts since the nineteenth century. Kehoe shows, in contrast, how “inherent sovereignty” was for Cohen “a metaphysical ideal” designed to aid Native Americans in their attempt to “[beat] the Man at his own game” (198-99), and thus demonstrates not only that this much bandied-about concept has a history, but that this history, as detailed in Kehoe’s book, is surprisingly imbricated in the intellectual labor of Jewish Americans, who were themselves attentive to the plight of other racialized groups.

There are a handful of instances in which A Passion for the True and Just leaves the reader in search of a more expansive and multidimensional analysis of the conditions in which the Cohens operated. For example, beyond a brief reference to the murder of Columbia anthropology student Henrietta Schmerler, which apparently barred Lucy from entering the field to pursue a PhD in anthropology under Edward Sapir (62-63), there is little mention of how Lucy’s position as a woman may have shaped her movements through institutions dominated by men. A deeper exploration of this topic could have been joined with Kehoe’s acute attention to the structuring power of early twentieth century anti-Semitism. In making these connections, Kehoe’s study could contribute handily to past and present attempts to consider the ways in which the intersections of race and gender laid the foundation for the production and application of anthropological knowledge in the US.[7]

That said, Alice Kehoe has written an important addition to past and present attempts to scrutinize anthropology’s relationship with US governmental practice. It suggests the importance of looking beyond typical objects of analysis and toward spaces and individuals that might otherwise not be marked as “anthropological.” Though Felix Cohen was not an anthropologist by training and Lucy never completed a PhD, Kehoe has identified a series of indirect anthropological connections that came to have enduring consequences for federal Indian policy in the US. As a result, this study will also be of interest to those working to expand the purview of historical examinations of the political entanglements of Boasian anthropology, especially Boas’s complex relationship with the Collier-era Bureau of Indian Affairs.[8] By tracing the development of the Cohens’ passion for the true and just, Kehoe has offered an essential installment in the ongoing effort to cultivate a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between anthropology and Indian-US relations in the twentieth century.


[1] Encapsulated in the Dawes Act of 1887, allotment was intended to break up collectively held tribal land as part of a larger effort to incorporate Native Americans into the US as atomized property owners and (later) citizens. The connections between allotment and assimilation are explored in Frederick E. Hoxie, A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880-1920 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

[2] John Collier, From Every Zenith: A Memoir and Some Essays on Life and Thought (Denver: Sage Books, 1963). This position is captured clearly in George Pierre Castile, “Federal Indian Policy and Anthropology,” in A Companion to the Anthropology of American Indians, ed. Thomas Biolsi (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 268–83.

[3] Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968).

[4] For a tempered questioning of the historical dimensions of Boas’s ethnography, see David W. Dinwoodie, “Anthropological Activism and Boas’s Pacific Northwest Ethnology,” in The Franz Boas Papers, ed. Regnal Darnell et al., vol. 1, Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 215–35. Though he borders on hostile in his critiques, Paul Radin present another useful perspective on Boas’s historicism in Paul Radin, The Method and Theory of Ethnology: An Essay in Criticism (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933).

[5] Michael Brown articulates this view in Michael F. Brown, “Sovereignty’s Betrayals,” in Indigenous Experience Today, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Orin Starn (New York: Berg Publishers, 2007), 171–94.

[6] For a clear example of the socially constructed nature of treaty making, see Andrew H. Fisher, Shadow Tribe: The Making of Columbia River Indian Identity (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

[7] Donna Haraway, “Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936,” Social Text Winter, no. 11 (1984-1985): 20–64; Louise Lamphere, “Women, Anthropology, Tourism, and the Southwest,” Frontier: A Journal of Women Studies 12, no. 3 (1992): 5–12; Catherine J. Lavender, Scientists and Storytellers: Feminist Anthropologists and the Construction of the American Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006); Erika Lorraine Milam, “Men in Groups: Anthropology and Aggression, 1965–84,” Osiris 30 (2015): 66–88; Nancy J. Parezo, Hidden Scholars: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

[8] Regna Darnell et al., eds., The Franz Boas Papers, vol. 1, Franz Boas as Public Intellectual—Theory, Ethnography, Activism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).

Nicholas Barron: contributions / website / nbarron@unm.edu

1 Comment

  1. Thank you very much for this excellent review, Nicholas! Regarding your paragraph on not expanding on Lucy Kramer as a woman caught in male-focused culture, explored in the books cited in note 7: as I worked on my book, Lucy’s niece Nancy Kramer Bickel was making her full-length video “A Twentieth Century Woman”, on Lucy’s life and work, incorporating Bickel’s lengthy interviews with Lucy. The video is available now at: http://www.lucykramercohen.com/index.aspx
    Bickel cooperated closely with me as I worked on my book.
    I felt the blatant anti-Semitism of the 1930s, and generally until 1951, has been much less realized and taken into account in our histories, than the issue of women in our discipline.

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