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Mattaponi and Pamunkey Tribes Give Tribute to Northam

Three men with Deer
Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray (center) and another tribe member present their deer to Gov. Northam. Gray remarked that for several years, the Pamunkey's tribute deer have been smaller than their Mattaponi counterpart, but their eight-pointer would take home top honors this year. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

The chiefs of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian Tribes met Wednesday with Gov. Ralph Northam to present him with two deer as part of the annual Indian tax tribute ceremony.

The ceremony dates back to the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation. British King Charles II signed the treaty with various indigenous tribes from Virginia, recognizing their right to live, hunt and fish on their homelands. In exchange, the tribes were to present tribute to the Crown.

Circumstances have changed over 343 years since the signing. Now, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, the only two tribes that remain on the reservation land promised in the treaty, offer one deer each to Virginia’s governor every year.

While the tribute may be more ceremonial now, Mattaponi Chief Mark Falling Star Custalow says it is important that the event continue to remind Virginia of its indigenous inhabitants.

“We respect our treaty as we want the state to respect us as a sovereign government. Which they do, we don’t have an issue, but just want to make sure that that continues,” he said.

For Custalow, the event is about more than just land rights, however, as he said it’s also become a part of Mattaponi culture.

“I started doing this treaty when I was probably about four years old, and I’ve been here every year,” he said. “My son, he started when he was five years old, and he’s been here every year. And so we want to continue to make sure this happens, and that the legacy goes on.”

Most years, the ceremony is attended by many representatives from both tribes, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant only a few people from each could attend. That didn’t stop Custalow and another tribe member from performing a ceremonial song and dance as part of the tribute, however.

Both tribes also presented the governor and First Lady Pam Northam with traditional gifts crafted by tribe members.

Custalow said in an interview that the tribe hopes to expand its land holdings in the state by reincorporating land that once belonged to their reservation.

“Land that used to be part of the reservation is no longer,” he said. “So we’re working with the state to try to see if there’s some things we can do to help us out with that.”

The Mattaponi were able to add 100 acres to their reservation last year, though they had to purchase the land themselves. Custalow also noted the tribe faces challenges since it is not federally recognized, despite being one of the tribes first mentioned in the records of Jamestown colonists.

Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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