The fourth Thursday in November has many different meanings for Native Americans. Every year since 1970, the United American Indians of New England have gathered on Cole’s Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock for the National Day of Mourning. In San Francisco Bay, Native people travel to Alcatraz Island (site of the 1969-1971 American Indian occupation) for the Indigenous Sunrise Ceremony, all part of the annual Unthanksgiving celebration. For the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indians in Virginia, the fourth Wednesday in November is the day they travel to Richmond to bring the governor a deer in tribute.
The tradition began with the “articles of peace” the Powhatans made with the government of Virginia in October 1646. The treaty, written after the death of Opechancanough, stipulated the Indians would pay to the governor “the number of twenty beaver skins att the goeing away of Geese yearely.” In 1649, the Pamunkey leader, Necotowance, brought the first recorded tribute payment to the English at James City. “That the Sunne and Moon should first lose their glorious lights and shining, before He, or his People should evermore hereafter wrong the English in any kind,” Necotowance declared, “but they would ever hold love and friendship together.” Although the Indians upheld Necotowance’s pledge, the colonists were not as faithful. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon’s rebels chased the Pamunkeys off their homelands and into Dragon Swamp, enslaving some and looting their possessions. When order was restored in 1677, commissioners from King Charles II negotiated a new treaty with the Pamunkeys and other tributary nations. With the treaty came a gift to the Queen of Pamunkey of a silver-plated frontlet for her traditional crown. (The frontlet was repatriated by the Pamunkeys, now a federally recognized Indian nation, just last year.) Today, the presentation of fresh-killed game is a show of sovereignty and symbolizes the nation-to-nation connection between each of the tributary tribes and the Commonwealth of Virginia.