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Holy road: Lucy Kramer Cohen

Uncredited co-author of 'Handbook of Federal Indian Law'

WASHINGTON - On Jan. 2 in Washington, Lucy Kramer Cohen followed legions of women who have died without fanfare, their work and character more or less unknown outside a small circle of admirers but forever remembered within it.

Cohen's memory will be invoked whenever the ''Handbook of Federal Indian Law'' is discussed among the knowledgeable, as the case was in October 2005 at the University Of Connecticut School Of Law. The law school's fall symposium celebrated the publication of the handbook's 2005 edition, a project she encouraged over its 12-year course. The edition is dedicated to her.

Cohen's more famous husband, attorney Felix S. Cohen, is the credited author of the handbook. But the couple worked as a team on both the drafting of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act and the ''Handbook of Federal Indian Law,'' which first appeared in 1941, then in six volumes in 1942. He went on to earn the Distinguished Service Award from the Interior Department before his early death in 1953. She worked for the most part uncompensated, having hired on at Interior in 1933. During those famine years of the Great Depression, it was illegal for one family to receive two federal paychecks.

But as an anthropologist trained under the renowned Franz Boas (and for that matter a Renaissance woman with a second master's degree in mathematics), Cohen proved indispensable to the data-gathering process that underlay the new federal Indian policy enshrined in the IRA. She also took part in drafting the watershed legislation.

By the late 1930s, Felix S. Cohen had become the assistant solicitor at Interior. In that post, when the handbook edition of 2005 began to circulate in law school libraries, he ''undertook the herculean labor of compiling and organizing a century and a half of treaties, statutes, judicial opinions and administrative rulings on Indian law,'' as noted in an obituary in The Washington Post. The handbook would become the first single-source authoritative volume for approximately 4,000 separate documents.

From them, the handbook extracted four bedrock principles: Indian law is not rooted in racial distinction but in the existence of tribes; tribes are self-governing, sovereign political bodies; they are subject to federal control; the federal government has an obligation to protect Indian interests from non-Indian interlopers.

Then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes justified the handbook in a famous sentence from the foreword: ''Ignorance of one's legal rights is always the handmaid of despotism.''

Cohen, unofficially on staff at Interior, provided research and writing for Ickes ''from a cubbyhole at the Library of Congress,'' the Post noted.

The Post quoted Nell Newton Jessup, the law professor who presided over the final writing and editing phase of the 2005 edition, on Cohen's contribution to the handbook: ''When Felix was detailed to Justice, Lucy helped draft the original edition of the Handbook, writing the chapters on treaties and on government services to Indians.

''I incorporated some of the chapter on treaties in the 2005 edition and marveled - as I always do - at the economy and elegance of writing. She proofread the whole thing as well: Her stories of feeding [her daughter] while proofreading mimeographed stencils are family legend.''

She held several other positions on Capitol Hill and in the government. Following her husband's death, she compiled and, with the assistance of family friends, edited his essays for publication under the 1960 title, ''The Legal Conscience.''