By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 9:59 PM
RICHMOND - In honor of Thanksgiving, the president of the United States gets to pardon a turkey each year.
In Virginia, the Thanksgiving tradition comes a bit more . . . deceased.
In a ceremony that traces its roots to a 333-year-old treaty between Native Americans and the British crown, chiefs of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian tribes gave Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) two deer and a turkey in lieu of taxes.
The animals were shot Tuesday on the tribes' reservations in King William County - the oldest reservations in the United States - and presented to the governor on Wednesday, trussed up on two tree boughs, on the brick driveway of the executive mansion in Richmond.
"On behalf of the people of Virginia, I accept this tribute," McDonnell said, as Chief Carl Custalow of the Mattaponi and Chief Robert Gray of the Pamunkey presented the animals to McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
In the 1677 treaty, Virginia's Indian tribes agreed to deliver 20 beaver skins to the governor of the colony "at the place of his residence, wherever it shall be."
There are no records to show whether the ceremony has been performed every year since, but historians have found evidence of its commemoration in modern times dating to the 19th century.
In years past, the game has then been donated to the homeless. But for the first time in memory, the McDonnells will personally be enjoying some of the meat.
This year, Todd Schneider, the mansion's executive chef, volunteered to butcher the venison and turn it into a stew for the first family. Leftovers will be donated to local homeless shelters.
Schneider said he had scouted out a garage used by the governor's security detail with hooks in the ceiling, so he could hang the deer for dressing. The innovation is possible because Schneider, new to the mansion this year, has the skills necessary to prepare the bucks for cooking.
"It's an honor to the tribe," Custalow said of the governor's plans to partake of their gift.
Wednesday's ceremony was also far smaller than in years past at the request of the tribes, who worried that the solemn nature of the tradition was being diluted as the ceremony had grown.
In years past, governors would host breakfasts and lunches before and after the presentation of the tribute, and hundreds of people would crowd the mansion's grounds to watch.
"It was really great," Gray said. "But the crowds really got big. For several years, even our own tribal members got pushed aside. We thought we were losing some of the original meaning of the ceremony. We just wanted to get back to the basic tradition."
This year's version was a simple and brief affair attended by a small knot of tribal members, many wearing traditional suede and feathered regalia. A fairly small crowd of spectators was allowed beyond the mansion's gates but kept well back from the ceremony.
Still, they were able to watch as the chiefs presented McDonnell with pottery and other gifts and as members of the Mattaponi tribe performed a traditional women's dance around the deer.
"This is part of the rich and marvelous heritage of the commonwealth of Virginia," said McDonnell, who took office in January and was participating in the first tribute ceremony of his four-year term.
Although most Americans associate Thanksgiving with a celebration held in 1622 in Plymouth in Massachusetts, McDonnell noted that Virginians believe that the nation's first Thanksgiving was held in 1619 at Berkeley Plantation, about 25 miles from Jamestown.
"This is a tough time for many people, in this economic downturn," McDonnell said. "But I hope ... we'll all take the time to appreciate the blessings we do have."
As for Thanksgiving traditions, McDonnell - often rumored to have national political ambitions - said he favored his own over the presidential pardon ceremony.
On Wednesday, President Obama spared a turkey named Apple and an alternate named Cider, and both will now retire to Mount Vernon.
"This is much better," McDonnell said. "I get to eat the turkey."