VIRGINIA INDIANS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
How does the annual payment of tribute to the governor by some of Virginia's Indians attest to their continuing presence?
(from the Library of Virginia's Myth & Memory exhibition, “We're Still Here: Virginia's First Peoples”)
Virginia's Indians appeared in the earliest histories of English settlement. Early depictions and descriptions showed the native peoples in settled communities that engaged in agriculture and fishing. Lacking a written history, Virginia's Indians left no narrative account of their reaction to English settlers. By the end of seventeenth century, the native peoples had, for many white Virginians, disappeared.
The annual payment of tribute by Virginia's Indians attests to their continuing presence. In 1646 Necotowance, “the King of the Indians” as the English styled him, signed a treaty to end the third major Anglo-Indian War. Annual payment of tribute to the colonial governor—20 beaver skins “att the goeing away of Geese”—made clear his submission to the English Crown and made contact between the two groups less spontaneous and more ritualized. Thirty-one years later Cockacoeske, the weroansqua, or chief, of the Pamunkey, signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation, which recognized the authority of the colonial government, but also acknowledged property, land use, and hunting rights of the Indians. More than 300 years later, those treaties continue to shape and govern the relationship between the commonwealth and the eight state-recognized Indian tribes—the Mattaponi, the Pamunkey, the Monacans, the Nansemond, the Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Eastern Chickahominy, and the Rappahannock. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey, representing the original treaty signers, also continue to pay tribute to the commonwealth's government.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, even the core groups of each of Virginia's Indian tribes had assumed European modes of dress, speech, and religion; some members had been absorbed into Anglo-American society, some into African American. By the 1840s only the Pamunkey and Mattaponi continued to hold their reservations and maintain the treaty obligations and relationship. The most contentious issue has always been the Indians' tax-exempt status. Officials like Walter A. Plecker, the State Registrar of Vital Statistics early in the twentieth century, manipulated and distorted records to show that the genealogical heritage of Virginia's Indians was so intermixed with Virginia's African Americans that no “real” Indians existed. In addition to his racial purity campaign, Plecker also believed that the reservation tribes no longer deserved their tax exemptions on their land.
Through tribute ceremonies, the tribes educated Virginia's governors about the rights and obligations of the Treaty of Middle Plantation and asserted their sovereign status. Over the years the tribute presentation has been shifted to the autumn, when deer are most plentiful, and evolved into a ceremony that draws crowds of onlookers to the Capitol in Richmond each Thanksgiving. Although the Pamunkey and Mattaponi continue to pay tribute, all eight of Virginia's state-recognized tribes honor and attend the ceremony as a reminder of their past power, tenacious survival, and continued cooperation first articulated in the long-lived Treaty of Middle Plantation.
This photograph from December 4, 1989, shows Governor Gerald L. Baliles accepting a tribute of wild turkey from Herman A. Dennis (left) and Tecumseh Deerfoot Cook (right) of the Pamunkey Indian tribe in a ceremony on the steps of the Virginia Executive Mansion in Richmond. On Thanksgiving that year, Baliles hosted the chiefs of Virginia's eight state-recognized tribes at a dinner at the Executive Mansion.
• Tribute—a gift or payment
• Treaty—a formal agreement between two nations
• Show the class the photograph and have them record their first impressions. Compare impressions and reasons before telling the facts about the photo.
♦ Who is pictured? (tribes represented & man with glasses)
♦ Where and when was the photograph taken?
♦ Why are the Virginia Indians giving the man a dead bird? (what kind of bird is it?).
• Have students read this excerpt from the Middle Plantation treaty, Section XVI . Attention should be directed to “the month of March” and “rent of twentie beaver skins” as students discuss the picture. How does the picture differ from terms of the treaty and why?
“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 skins, to the Govern'r and alsoe their quit rent aforesaid, in acknowledgment that they hold their Crownes, and lands of the great King of England.”
• This picture can also serve as an introduction to a lesson on holidays, Thanksgiving specifically. Have students brainstorm about what they think of when they hear the word “Thanksgiving.” Compare & contrast answers and discuss possible reasons for differences.
Research and Discussion Questions:
• Research the ceremony of paying tribute to the governor. Which Virginia tribes participate? Why? Do the same tribes have other ceremonies or rituals that are similar to the paying of the tribute?
• Why is it important for all modern Virginians to recognize that there are still active Virginia Indian tribes?
• Why are Indians who live on reservations exempt from paying property tax to the federal and state governments?
"Table Turned On Thanksgiving Tradition," November 24, 1989, Richmond Times-Dispatch.