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One of the nation’s oldest – and perhaps oddest – rituals takes place in Richmond
each autumn when the Pamunkey and Mattaponi pay their reservation rent to the
No money exchanges hands. Instead, the governor is presented with game – a fresh
deer kill, a string of fish or a wild turkey hung by its ankles. As far as anyone can
recall, the tribes have never missed a payment – for 33 1 years.
The annual “tribute,” as it’s called, is outlined in a 1677 treaty that’s technically still
in effect. Specifics have evolved over the centuries, but the basics remain the same:
“That every Indian King and Queen in the month of March every yeare with some of
theire great men tender their obedience to the R’t Honourable his Majesties Govern’r
at the place of his residence, wherever it shall be, and then and there pay the
accustomed rent of twentie beaver skinns, to the Govern’r …”
That was not an unusual demand in those days. Pacts between colonials and Indians
often included some form of payment from the natives. As the settlement grew
stronger, tributes became more symbolic – a sign of a tribe’s submission to the new
government. After a while, there was no need for that, either. The tribes were broken,
no longer a concern.
There’s every chance the annual tribute would have ended long ago if it weren’t for
the Indians themselves. They kept delivering. Year after year. Somewhere along the
way, tribute time moved to “att the goeing away of Geese” – the terms of an even
older treaty. When beaver grew scarce, game was substituted for pelts.
But still, they came. Determined not to be forgotten. Adamant that no one be able to
say they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
Brown-hued photos capture the last century or so of tribute – a ceremonial moment
recorded on granite steps. There are Indians in buckskin, on horseback, in suits and
ties, and pained-looking governor s’ wives contemplating the latest carcasses.
The tradition shows no sign of falling by the wayside. These days, the tribute is
almost always deer. In the Pamunkey tribe, hunters set out a few days before
Thanksgiving to bag a whitetail.
The kill waits in cold storage, gutted but not butchered. On the Wednesday before the
holiday, it’s hoisted into the bed of a pickup and driven to the governor’s mansion.
After a brunch – which gives Indians the governor’s ear – everyone steps outside for
the ceremony. Then the carcass heads to a homeless shelter or food bank.
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