Mattaponi Chief Mark Custalow presents Gov. Ralph Northam with a deer in November, 2018, under the terms of a treaty signed in 1677. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
For 343 years, representatives of the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian Tribes have been delivering fresh game in lieu of taxes to Virginia governors under the terms of a 1677 peace treaty.
This year, some members of the Mattaponi tribe are hoping the pre-Thanksgiving ceremony will deliver something for them: attention to their push for democratic tribal elections and women’s suffrage.
“It’s five unelected men who make decisions for everyone,” said Gloria Custalow, a 62-year-old member of the tribe who began petitioning for the right to participate in tribal politics in 2016. “It’s backwards and we just need to get things straight.”
She spoke last week in the waiting area of the King William County Courthouse, where she and 12 other members of the tribe and their supporters were being booked on misdemeanor charges of trespassing and assault by mob.
Mattaponi Chief Mark Custalow filed the charges late last month after a group of tribal members and their supporters walked to his home on the reservation to deliver a petition announcing they would no longer recognize the tribal government and planned to hold the first open election since the mid-1970s.
Lawyers for the demonstrators called the criminal charges, which the chief swore out before a magistrate, absurd.
“They knocked on the door and left a copy of the petition; then they went home and had a cookout,” said Tony Troy, a former attorney general who is representing the tribal members pro-bono with his law partner, Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin.
Video of the march showed a peaceful demonstration that lasted less than 10 minutes. Troy said the youngest participants were children and the oldest was 93.
At a hearing Thursday, a judge set a trial for Dec. 16, and agreed to modify a restraining order the chief also took out against participants in the march to allow them to attend a protest Wednesday on Capitol Square, which is timed to coincide with the annual tax-tribute, during which Chief Custalow and his predecessors traditionally present the governor deer and other game harvested from the reservation.
Chief Custalow has declined to comment. “I think it will all come out in court,” he said as he left the courthouse on Thursday.
Members of the tribe say that for years the chief has refused to acknowledge or discuss members’ concerns.
They describe a tribal government that has grown increasingly insular and opaque. The last tribal elections anyone can remember took place in the 1970s. At the time, women were not allowed to vote, making the tribe an outlier among indigenous communities, members say. Since then, members of the tribal council, which includes a chief, assistant chief and three councilors, have appointed their own successors.
Until recently, their meetings were generally open to male members of the tribe, but about two years ago they began meeting only in secret, members say.
The tribal government is responsible for overseeing tribal membership and managing the 250-acre reservation and its budget. Situated on the steep banks of the Mattaponi River, the reservation is home to about 75 residents, a church, a museum and an education center.
Both membership and reservation housing are major points of concern for the members.
They say they have no access to the tribal rolls, leaving them uncertain about basic facts like how many people are members. And they complain of arbitrary decisions about who can join. Jody Custalow (it’s a very common surname among the tribe) said both his sons were denied membership because the chief said their “skin was too light.”
Decisions about who gets to live on the reservation are also made in secret and members complain that their requests for lots and housing have gone unanswered for years.
Lonnie Custalow, who operates a cabinet shop on the reservation, said tribal leadership targeted him and tried to shut down his business after he began to question their legitimacy. “I became an outcast in the tribe,” he said.
Members say they’re also upset that more people aren’t being allowed to build homes on the reservation. They say most requests for lots go unanswered despite having plenty of space after the reservation added 100 acres in a 2019 deal with the state, which holds the reservation in a perpetual trust on behalf of the tribe.
Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said in an email that Northam’s administration is “aware tangentially of some of the issues that have arisen recently between members of the Mattaponi” but that none of the members with concerns have directly contacted the administration.
“Governor Northam respects the sovereignty of all our Tribal Nations and has always kept an open line of communication between himself and Tribal leaders,” Thomasson said.
Tribal members say that under the 1677 treaty, the state does have a stewardship role and could intervene, but that for now, they’re not asking state officials to take action. But they say they do hope that outside attention will help force change within.
“We’ve got a whole new generation of children being born right now,” Gloria Custalow said. “We need to have something for them to be proud of, and right now, we don’t.”
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