After a year of public feuding, Mattaponi tribal conflict comes to a head
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that trespassing charges brought against 13 people had yet to be pursued. In fact, final rulings in those cases were deferred for a year. We have updated the article and apologize for the error.
After a century of exclusion, Women's History Month 2022 ended with historic changes for Mattaponi women, who voted last week in the tribe's first open elections in nearly 50 years. It is believed to have been 100 years since women last voted in tribal elections.
Christine “Rippling Water” Custalow, the 84-year-old matriarch of the tribe, cast her first vote in any election. The past year featured many firsts for Custalow, including being booked at the King William County magistrate’s office.
“I never thought I'd have to face Mark and say, ‘I want my rights,’'' she said, referring to longtime Chief Mark “Falling Star” Custalow. “I honestly feel very proud for being arrested – didn’t know I was being arrested, but one day I’m going to let him know how it felt for him to do that to us.
“He picked us, too, 13 people,” she said. “Everything was for a reason.”
‘Give us our rights, give us our voice’
Tribal conflict became public last summer when social media pages, known as Mattaponi Voice or “Spirit Crow,” posted allegations that the tribal council deceived the tribe for years. Months passed as tensions continued to rise. In support of the allegations, reservation residents, tribal descendants and allies posted numerous grievances against the council.
Seeking inclusion in tribal business, the Mattaponi Women’s Coalition met with Chief Mark Custalow last June. Their initial request was for the right to attend tribal meetings, vote, run for office and be granted land on the reservation. When asked how he would rectify the lack of political participation from women, he blamed the governing bodies of the past.
According to tribe members, the council and chief denied further requests to meet, and audio from allegedly secret meetings posted online revealed the council was seeking to create a new constitution that expanded and entrenched their power.
After months of council inaction – denied or ignored letters, phone calls and requests for more meetings – members took matters into their own hands. Several Mattaponi tribal descendants and allies peacefully marched around the reservation’s old dirt road last fall, delivering notices to the current tribal government.
“I will not stay silent so that you can stay comfortable,” one sign held by a tribe member read. “Give us our rights, give us our voice,” another requested. “You will find out you have no choice.”
Calling for elections, the group left notices at the houses of each council member and the chief saying they were no longer recognized as tribal leaders.
As the Virginia Mercury reported, the chief went to the King William County magistrate, seeking misdemeanor charges for trespassing and assault by mob against 13 tribe members and allies. Earlier that day, Sheriff Jeff Walton was on the reservation, and according to a video detailing the event, he acknowledged that participants had the right to peaceably assemble. The assault charges have since been dropped, and final rulings on the trespassing charges were deferred for a year.
The group's second protest followed an annual ceremony where the Mattaponi and Pamunkey chief present tribute to Virginia’s governor. At the Bell Tower in Capitol Square, Indigenous women and allies called for new leadership moments after the ceremony’s conclusion. Raven “Brightwater” Custalow was one of the speakers featured at the event.
“Our sovereignty was taken away over time and replaced with colonial settlers’ ideals,” she said. “Self-determination empowers the tribes to exercise their sovereignty, control their own tribal affairs and have the autonomy to fully engage in all aspects of their culture.”
When their calls for increased participation were rebuffed again, tribe members decided they would hold their own elections, which took place Saturday, March 26.
“Our election today was historic,” said Lionel "Wise Spirit" Custalow, who was elected chief, in a press release. “It is the first time our Tribe has adopted a constitution that bans discrimination in tribal membership and the allocation of tribal resources.”
The election results were certified by former Virginia Board of Elections Secretary Cameron Quinn and a letter from newly elected Chief Lonnie Custalow was hand-delivered to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Office last Tuesday.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin has yet to host his first tribute ceremony, but Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James said she “looks forward to a continuing relationship with the new leadership of the Mattaponi Tribe chosen” in the election, VPM News reported late last month. The governor’s office did not respond for follow-up comment on the election results.
Incumbent tribal leadership is pushing back on the legitimacy of the election. Two days following the election, they shared a notice with “Tribal Members and other Tribal Communities,” which they later shared with VPM News.
“At a minimum, the Spirit Crow Group’s actions are harming the Tribe by creating confusion among tribal membership and outside parties,” it reads. “If they call themselves Chief, Assistant Chief or Council Members of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe, then they are misrepresenting themselves as government officials.”
Ultimately, the secretary of the commonwealth will determine who they will recognize as the tribal government. Who that will be remains unclear.
“I don’t know what will happen. Stay tuned,” Claire Gastañaga, a lawyer advising the Spirit Crow group, told the Virginia Mercury. “My clients hope that, ultimately, the two sides will be able to come together and focus on common interests in seeking a resolution.”
Seeking federal recognition and cultural revitalization
Grievances from Spirit Crow group members don’t end with political participation.
Virginia recognizes 11 tribes within the state, and seven of those are federally recognized. The Mattaponi, however, only have state recognition. As a sovereign people, they have the right to self-governance, but federal recognition opens access to millions of dollars in grant money.
The Mattaponi first applied for federal recognition in 1995, but several Mattaponi tribal descendants blame Chief Mark Custalow for failing to get recognition.
The recent election allowed registered members of the tribe to replace current leadership and pass a new constitution and bylaws. Passing a constitution and having set criteria for membership are crucial steps towards gaining recognition.
Newly elected Chief Lonnie Custalow says the elected council plans to engage in “responsible, open, and inclusive self-governance … assuring the sovereignty of our tribe as an independent governing body in Virginia with full ownership and responsibility for our ancestral lands.”
Five women were elected, including Christine’s children, like Gloria “Moonlight” Custalow for assistant chief, and grandchildren, like Raven for council. All three women participated in the tribute ceremony protest.
“She’s very outspoken,” Christine said about her daughter, Gloria. “She’s very passionate about it. I’m very proud of the kids.”
Descending from both Custalow lines (not everyone mentioned in the story is directly related unless mentioned), Christine’s children are known as the culture keepers. One grievance alleged against the council is the denial of access to Christine’s pottery kiln. Until about a decade ago, she taught native children from tribes across the area.
“I was teaching them clay, beadwork, regalia-making, dance, everything,” Christine said. “Some from Pamunkey, some from Upper Mattaponi, and some from Rappahannock – just teenagers, young kids. It worked out good.”
Christine would teach on Saturdays, sometimes in between shifts at her job in the health care sector, specifically in-home care.
“Sometimes I'd have to go to work, fix breakfast, then come home by 9 to open my classes, teach until 2, get in my car and go back to work,” she said. “But those children loved it. Now Raven and them are teaching their children.”
Raven learned from and sold pottery alongside her grandmother from a young age. She’s now president of Eastern Woodland Revitalization, which is dedicated to learning and teaching ways of tribal life and advocating for Indigenous communities.
The youngest of Christine's children, Lonnie, went everywhere with his mother before starting school. They spent most mornings out on the Mattaponi River with her mother and father, bringing their catch home for meals.
“Lonnie wanted to fish, so Daddy would pull the boat up beside a tree and cut a little limb off and tie a string to it, put a safety pin on the end, [and] stick a worm on it,” Christine said. “That little stinker was catching fish when I wasn't catching any!”
Elders taught Lonnie how to bow hunt, net fish and craft the heartbeat of the tribe: its drum. Lonnie and his brothers even taught the former chief how to play and sing. National Museum for the American Indian displays feature Christine’s pottery, and her work was featured at the VMFA. She says her connection to her heritage and culture started at a young age.
“Mama was bead working making for my older brother – we call him Bobo – Randolph, a belt and I'm on my knees in the chair watching her,” Christine said. “When it was time to cook her biscuits … for lunch, she put the loom over beside the window, and I'm still sitting there running my finger over the beads. I wanted to touch them so bad.
“It took me forever, but when I put those first four beads on there, I felt a little woman, like really, really this is something big.”
Beyond the election, the reorganized tribe says they want to extend that feeling of belonging to more tribal descendants. They hope to work on the success of the reservation, including finding space for future generations to connect with their ancestral land.