Hidden History - Game Day

Indian tribes meet annually on Thanksgiving Eve to present the governor with freshly harvested animals

By Ben Swenson

The people of Virginia dish out a lot to their governor. He’s no stranger to the occasional ball cap, coffee mug or key to the city. But each November, in a curious ceremony dating back more than three centuries, a certain group of Virginians presents the governor with an offering of a much different sort.

The day before Thanksgiving, Virginia Indians from two tribes meet with the governor in front of the Executive Mansion in Richmond to pay their respects in the form of freshly harvested game. Called the Tax Tribute Ceremony, it’s a tradition dating back, some historians say, to 1646, when a treaty ending an Anglo-Indian war said that Powhatan Indians were to pay an annual tribute of 20 beaver skins to the English, who would, in turn, offer protection from “any Rebells or other Enemies.”

A few decades later another agreement, called the Treaty of Middle Plantation, recognized the right of Virginia Indians to use their land in exchange for a yearly contribution of “three Indian Arrowes.” These gifts were largely symbolic. More important was the political alliance between Virginia Indians and the English that the charity represented.

Of course, the days of beaver pelts, arrows and English rule are long gone, yet Virginia Indians carry on with this ritual.

“As a tribe, we like to stick with tradition as much as possible,” says Robert Gray, acting chief of the Pamunkey Tribe from August 2010 to August 2011.

Gray has attended the Tax Tribute Ceremony many times. He’ll be there to help present Gov. McDonnell with game again this year, too. Gray has also participated in harvesting the animals, which are taken on and around the Indians’ land, usually a day or two before they are presented to the governor.

The relationship between Virginia Indians and the commonwealth is important, explains Gray. The Pamunkey Tribe is one of eight tribes recognized by the government of Virginia.

In King William County, just west of Hampton Roads, the Pamunkey have a 1,200-acre reservation, land that’s held in trust for the tribe in perpetuity. Instead of property taxes, the Pamunkey pay Virginia with the bounty of the land.

“This ceremony is a symbol of the government-to-government relationship,” says Gray. “We’re upholding our end of the bargain, and we’ve done so all these years. That’s something we are very proud of.”

The Mattaponi Tribe participates in the ceremony as well. The Mattaponi’s 150-acre reservation is also in King William County. The reservations of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey are said to be the oldest in the United States.

Last year, Mattaponi Chief Carl Custalow and several other members of his tribe were on hand to present the governor with their tribute. In addition to two buck deer and a turkey, McDonnell received hand-made pottery, and Mattaponi women performed a traditional tribal dance. McDonnell graciously accepted all the offerings “on behalf of the people of Virginia.”

Gov. McDonnell, for his part, took the Tax Tribute Ceremony to a new level last year, one not seen in recent memory. In years past, all the meat from the animals has been donated to local charities, such as Hunters for the Hungry, to help feed needy Virginians.

McDonnell followed this tradition and donated some of the meat, but he also had his Executive Chef Todd Schneider dress and prepare a portion of the food for his family’s table as well. Chef Schneider put the Indians’ largesse to good use, making stew, chili and a dish made from the deer loin called—what else?—Virginia Venison.

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