Tomorrow is a day set aside to feast and give thanks. It’s an honorable tradition and my favorite holiday, hands down. But before I set aside my keyboard to clean house and bake pies, I wanted to share a Thanksgiving tax tradition that I recently discovered.

It is surely known to some of you, but not being a Virginian, I was unaware of the annual Tax Tribute ceremony that’s held every year on the day before Thanksgiving. Based on the Treaty of 1646, which ended the Anglo-Indian War, it requires the “Indian King and Queen” of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes to pay “the accustomed rent of twentie beaver skins to the Govern’r.” When the treaty was amended in 1677, the tribute was changed to 3 Indian arrows.

Beaver skins and arrows eventually morphed into “wild game and hand-crafted gifts,” according to email records from the Office of the Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. It’s now common practice for Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribal chiefs to present the governor with freshly killed deer, wild turkeys, and other gifts (check out the Digital Journal’s photographs of the ceremony).

In exchange, the governor offers food to his guests — “provisions,” under the terms of the treaty. The treaty also promises the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes protection “against any rebells or other enemies whatsoever,” as well as a certain amount of land, and hunting and fishing rights. These days, the governor may also pledge to improve the situation of Native Americans.

For example, former Governor Mark Warner recognized during one Tax Tribunal ceremony that the injustices of the past continue. In an attempt to make amends, he pledged among other things to secure more funds for the Council on Indians and better integrate Native American history into school curriculum. “Together,” he assured, “we can create a Commonwealth worthy of your forgiveness.”

I find it fascinating that this tradition has endured for more than 350 years — much longer than our country’s tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November (the Tax Tribute ceremony was originally held in March). Equally interesting to me is the fact that it involves a tax tribute.

Let the tax exempt bring beavers

History shows that treaties such as these did little to protect and honor Native Americans and their way of life. Instead, they treat the native peoples of this land as conquered, tributary nations. Similarly, the Constitution of the United States calls reservations  “sovereign, foreign countries” and excludes Native Americans from the population entitled to representation. It also exempts them from taxes.

That remains generally true today. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

  • Federal income taxes aren’t levied on income from trust lands held for American Indians by the United States government
  • Local property taxes aren’t paid on reservation or trust land
  • State income taxes aren’t paid on income earned on a federal Indian reservation
  • State sales taxes aren’t paid by Indians on transactions made on a federal Indian reservation

Native Americans who are enrolled members of a tribe and live on reservations don’t have to pay state sales taxes on taxable purchases shipped or delivered to an address on the reservation. However, if a member of a tribe purchases and takes possession of a taxable item outside the boundaries of the reservation, the transaction is subject to state and local sales tax. Non-natives often must pay state sales tax on purchases made on reservations, as must Native Americans who are members of a different tribe. This has sometimes caused confusion in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and other states.

Deer as tax tribute

But back to the deer. In spite of all that this nation has done to Native American peoples — all the bloodshed, broken promises, and ineffectual treaties — the leaders of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes still bring their tribute to the governor every year. They hunt the deer and wild fowl on their lands and present them to the governor, his wife, and a crowd of onlookers. Speeches are made, dances are danced, gifts given, and a meal is shared. It’s tradition, and a beautiful expression of forgiveness and community. In a further gesture of generosity, the game is generally given to Hunters for the Hungry, a charity that serves donated meat to Virginians in need (Washington Post).

See scenes from this year’s ceremony, presided by Governor Terry McCauliffe, here.

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