Editor’s Note: Alice B. Kehoe works in both archaeology and American First Nations histories, seeing the continuum between American archaeology and the histories of the nations whose sites are studied. She explains here how her training in Boasian anthropology prepared her to write A Passion for the True and Just: Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen and the Indian New Deal.
In the late 1970s, I began to read key works in history/philosophy of science, attempting to figure out Lewis Binford’s naïve notion of scientific method that was somehow attracting disciples in American archaeology.[i] Not until, decades later, when I read Mark Solovey’s account of Cold War strategy promoting the physical sciences,[ii] and George Reisch’s description of McCarthyism curtailing humanistic dimensions of philosophy of science,[iii] could I understand how Binford’s cold “objective” version of archaeology fit the tenor of the time, winning National Science Foundation funds and graduate students. Binford’s “New Archaeology” was also deeply colonialist, abjuring any historical approach to “prehistoric” America (endnote 5). Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin’s Natural Order woke me up.[iv] Rationality is, as Peter Novick would have said, a “noble dream.”[v] Cultural context is key.
Following this path, in the 1980s I came to see “prehistory” as a strange, though commonplace, concept for archaeologists.[vi] What was the context of the introduction of the term? To find out, I needed to go to Edinburgh, where the term was first used in 1851 by Daniel Wilson.[vii] I applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a research fellowship. My application was denied, with a brief review from an anonymous reviewer saying I could not do the proposed research because I am not a trained historian. Next year, I applied again, explaining that my training at Barnard/Columbia and Harvard had included learning to use archives, weigh historical sources, and so on. Again a denial, and the same short negative review repeated.[viii] When my next sabbatical from Marquette University came, I went to Edinburgh without outside support and worked in archives, talked with people in the School of Scottish Studies, had discussions with Barnes and David Bloor of the “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge, and absorbed the lowland Scotland milieu. Both Barnes and Bloor, and Shapin who was then with them, encouraged me to follow the path of contextualizing the 1840s Edinburgh in which Daniel Wilson lived along with Walter Scott and his salon, the Chambers brothers who revolutionized publishing with cheap mass-produced books, the Revolutions of 1848, and richly fermenting demands for meritocracies, for education, and for science. My outcome, The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology,[ix] has been received as a history, though so anthropological in approach. I explained how Binford’s enculturation in Virginia Fundamentalism, his college welcoming its neighbor Jerry Falwell and hiring a leading Creationist as a professor, failed to train him in sophisticated science. Here he contrasted vividly with Daniel Wilson whose science was appropriately modeled on geology and who taught literature and history as he led the development of the University of Toronto.
When, following retirement from teaching, I could work seriously on a major landmark in North American First Nations’ histories, the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), context was again a major concern. My North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account was due to be updated for a third edition, and in our new millennium, First Nations’ sovereignties became a major issue. The 1930s’ Indian New Deal, of which the IRA was the first accomplishment, needed close scrutiny to discern and document its real effects and its relevance for twenty-first century America. At the time, principal works on the IRA were written by male historians. They focused on John Collier, a wealthy WASP to whom credit was given for envisioning the Act and leading it to enactment. My epiphany came when I looked, once more, through Kenneth Philp’s 1986 compilation of mostly Indian accounts of the IRA and noticed in the short italicized introduction to Mrs. Lucy Kramer Cohen’s comments on her deceased husband Felix’s work that she was a Barnard graduate.[x] She had studied anthropology with Franz Boas! Yet Collier denied, in his autobiography, that Boas had had any influence on the IRA. Felix Cohen had written the IRA legislation, the Indian Claims Commission Act, and the Handbook of Federal Indian Law.[xi] Could he have known Boas, might he have been influenced by him? The ground shifted under my feet.
My standpoint was not that of the Anglo male historians. I am Jewish; I am female. As a Jew, however liberal, I grew up marginalized from WASP America; as a woman, I was marginalized from my chosen field, American archaeology. Marrying an archaeologist got me into fieldwork, without the respect my collaborator husband received. What had Mrs. Cohen experienced, a Jewish woman studying in Barnard/Columbia, as I had a generation later?
Here my research diverged radically. For one of the Association of Senior Anthropologists’ sessions at the American Anthropological Association meetings, I presented what I had gathered at that point, that Felix Cohen’s work was not given its due importance, and that his wife had been a Boas student. Mel Ember was in the audience, and afterward, asked me whether I was acquainted with the Cohens’ daughters? No. Mel gave me Karen Cohen Holmes’ contact information. Karen welcomed my inquiry, shared it with her sister Gene and cousin Nancy Kramer Bickel. Nancy was working on a video documentary of her aunt Lucy. For several years, she shared her research and family familiarity with me. Her film titled A Twentieth Century Woman portrays a lively, brilliant woman obscured in the men’s world of her time, until late in life when her management of statistics for U. S. Public Health—a skill she learned apprenticing to Boas—brought her accolades in that field.[xii]
Having laid the groundwork for my book project with my own experience as a Jewish, woman, anthropologist and with collegial assistance from the Cohen/Bickel family and legal scholar Dalia Tsuk, Felix’s biographer, I then turned to archives. Beinecke Library at Yale gave me a month’s stipend to work there with the personal papers of Felix and of Lucy Kramer Cohen. Not a large archive, Felix’s official papers are elsewhere. In the folders I saw letters from John Collier detailing the three years of unpaid full-time work Lucy did for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as research assistant for her husband’s legal work and coordinator of Collier’s outreaches to Indian leaders. During the Depression, the government would not give two salaries to a married couple, so Lucy deferred to Felix’s larger income and does not appear in Bureau of Indian Affairs payrolls. Indeed, representative of twentieth-century women.
Among the papers in the Cohens’ files in the Beinecke are a few letters between them and Boas, more between them and Lucy’s fellow graduate students, especially the Lessers (Alexander and Gene Weltfish) and Archie Phinney, and much more from the Cohens’ activities with highly educated liberal New York Jewish young people. Contrary to stereotype, this circle of Social Democrat visionaries loved the Adirondacks, not the Catskills, hiked and canoed, among them Bob Marshall, BIA’s chief forester, whose father was the civil rights activist lawyer Louis Marshall. The Bob Marshall Wilderness adjourning Glacier National Park on the south honors him—and a portion is contested by the Amskapi Pikuni (Montana Blackfeet) whom I visit annually. The Cohens traveled to a number of Indian reservations during the 1930s, and again after World War II when Felix was legal counsel to the Blackfeet, among other tribes. Here my research intersected with contemporary Amskapi Pikuni: I collaborated with their THPO[xiii] office’s Stewart Miller to write a history of their nation. Altogether, my experiences as a woman, a liberal American Jew, an anthropologist trained in the Boasian tradition, a fieldworker with Indian people, strongly entrained my work on the Indian Reorganization Act. Those papers in the Beinecke archives added firsthand detail and, let’s face it, the citations demanded by other scholars.
This brief note cannot convey the emotional impact of discovering the extraordinary Felix Cohen, dead from cancer at age 46; Lucy the epitome of a Barnard woman (my college); Felix’s astounding father the philosopher and friend of Boas, Morris Raphael Cohen; the blatant anti-semitism of the 1930s in which I was born; and the powerful Boasian influence within the Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Beyond these personal involvements is the understanding of tribal sovereignty in an Anglo nation that was so greatly deepened by learning how Felix and Lucy Kramer Cohen, Nathan Margold, and Harold Ickes constructed the New Deal’s Indian policy from within Ickes’ Department of the Interior.
[ii] Solovey, Mark, Shaky Foundations: The Politics-Patronage-Social Science Nexus in Cold War America. (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013).
[iii] Reisch, George A., How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[iv] Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin, Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1979).
[v] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1988).
[vii] Christopher Chippindale, “The Invention of Words for the Idea of ‘Prehistory,’” Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 54 (1988): 303–14.
[viii] Eventually, I figured out the lone reviewer must have been George Stocking defending his domain. Confronting him head-on would have made me look simple-minded.
[ix] Alice B. Kehoe, The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology (New York: Routledge, 1998).
[x] Kenneth R. Philp, Indian Self-Rule: First-Hand Accounts of Indian-White Relations from Roosevelt to Reagan (Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1986).
[xi] Dalia Tsuk Mitchell, Architect of Justice: Felix S. Cohen and the Founding of American Legal Pluralism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007).
[xiii] Tribal Historic Preservation Office.