On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions (American Indian Law and Policy)
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A newly discovered document sheds light on Indian self-governance
Felix Cohen (19071953) was a leading architect of the Indian New Deal and steadfast champion of American Indian rights. Appointed to the Department of the Interior in 1933, he helped draft the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) and chaired a committee charged with assisting tribes in organizing their governments. His Basic Memorandum on Drafting of Tribal Constitutions,” submitted in November 1934, provided practical guidelines for that effort.
Largely forgotten until Cohen’s papers were released more than half a century later, the memorandum now receives the attention it has long deserved. David E. Wilkins presents the entire work, edited and introduced with an essay that describes its origins and places it in historical context. Cohen recommended that each tribe consider preserving ancient traditions that offered wisdom to those drafting constitutions. Strongly opposed to sending out canned constitutions from Washington,” he offered ideas for incorporating Indigenous political, social, and cultural knowledge and structure into new tribal constitutions.
On the Drafting of Tribal Constitutions shows that concepts of Indigenous autonomy and self-governance have been vital to Native nations throughout history. As today’s tribal governments undertake reform, Cohen’s memorandum again offers a wealth of insight on how best to amend previous constitutions. It also helps scholars better understand the historic policy shift brought about by the Indian Reorganization Act.