Settler colonialism as tribute: Dylan Ruediger, ‘”Neither Utterly to Reject Them, Nor Yet to Drawe Them to Come In”: Tributary Subordination and Settler Colonialism in Virginia’, Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 18, 1, 2020, pp. 1-31


Abstract: This essay explores tributary relationships between colonists and Algonquian peoples in seventeenth-century Virginia, placing the process of political subordination into familiar narratives of indigenous dispossession. Virginia’s tributary system—a political and legal institution founded in 1646 at the conclusion of the third Anglo-Powhatan war—created a colonial order in which Indian communities became subordinated but largely autonomous polities within a composite imperial state. This idea of tribute, a form of what Hugo Grotius called an “unequal alliance,” had roots in Algonquian political traditions and the emerging European literature on international law. Drawing on these lineages, this essay provides a framework for thinking about how the tributary system developed in the decades between 1646 and 1676. The legal and political distance separating tributaries from colonists proved to be an important tool for indigenous communities struggling to maintain communal identity, but provided colonists with a flexible means of effecting dispossession. Though colonists’ resentment of the slender protections Governor William Berkeley afforded tributaries erupted into civil war in 1676, Bacon’s Rebellion failed to destroy the tributary system. It was reestablished at the Treaty of the Middle Plantation in 1677, which still provides the legal framework for Indian relations in the state of Virginia.

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