‘We have to take it back’: Mattaponi protest wants Va. to recognize new leadership

November 29, 2021 12:02 am

Connie and Gloria Custalow, sisters and members of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe, stand on Capitol Square Wednesday after the annual tax tribute ceremony to protest the exclusion of women from tribal politics. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Christine Custalow had lived for 83 years on the sacred soil her Mattaponi ancestors had inhabited for centuries before things on the tribe’s sovereign reservation finally went too far for her.

It’s hard to appreciate what drove her to stand quietly on Wednesday beside Capitol Square’s historic Bell Tower as her children and grandchildren told a battery of reporters and cameras about alleged abuses by the tribe’s unelected leaders.

She had kept quiet for years when the reservation still democratically elected its government, but only allowed men to vote. She kept her counsel since the mid-1970s when elections ceased and an increasingly secretive, unaccountable and unelected patriarchy consolidated full control.

The grandmother of 16 children even held her tongue publicly when what amounted to a tribal monarchy refused to share even basic information about any aspect of reservation governance with her – or any woman for that matter – including who is and who is not classified as a member of the Mattaponi tribe.

Airing their internal conflicts and problems to the outside world is something that the Mattaponi just had not done over many centuries – well before English settlers invaded the land their forebears knew as Tsenacommacah and changed its name to Virginia.

That all changed Wednesday for Christine Custalow and perhaps a couple dozen other Native Americans, all because of what happened when Mattaponi protesters dared petition tribal rulers for the right to freely and openly elect their leaders and, for the first time, to allow women to vote.

As the Mercury’s Ned Oliver reported in stunning detail last week, a group of reservation residents ranging in age from children to a 93-year-old walked to the home of its chief, Mark Custalow (no relation to Christine or her family), knocked on his door, waited about 10 minutes, left a copy of the petition and peacefully departed and went home for a cookout.

The chief’s response was to file criminal charges of assault by mob and trespassing against about a dozen people who appeared at his home and exercised their First Amendment right. The misdemeanors are scheduled for trial Dec. 16 in King William General District Court.

Among the defendants who were booked and fingerprinted are Christine Custalow, her daughter, Connie Custalow, and her son, Lonnie Custalow. That made a vexation she had borne privately personal. And for the first time, she and others – most of them women – are taking an unprecedented step forward to discuss what it’s like to live in an insular, somewhat isolated autocracy just an hour’s drive from the seat of state government.

Because the tribal lands are sovereign, the commonwealth can’t dictate how their leaders are chosen. But the state has discretion to determine which leadership state government will recognize as legitimate, and that is where the dissidents are pinning their hopes.

They plan to hold elections and submit the winning officeholders to the commonwealth to recognize rather than a group of men that perpetuated their power without voter validation for about 45 years. That prompted Wednesday’s high-profile event, deliberately staged minutes after and a few hundred feet away from the annual ceremony at the Executive Mansion where Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribal representatives delivered freshly killed game in lieu of taxes, a tradition re-enacted for 375 years under terms of a treaty with colonial Virginia.

The key to making it work is engaging public support (and political pressure on state policymakers) behind their initiative. The visibility part worked. In addition to the story Ned broke, Wednesday’s event attracted a respectable contingent of media, particularly for a traditionally languid Thanksgiving eve news day in an empty Richmond business district.

“We have to take it back. Because we’re a sovereign government, we have to take it back and make it right,” Connie Custalow said after the event concluded in a tribal dance in which members joined hands with outsiders in a large human circle that moved clockwise in the dried leaves and bright sunshine on the state Capitol lawn to the ancient cadence of native drums.

“This is the beginning,” she said.

Suffering is not new to the America’s indigenous tribes, particularly those which were the first to encounter European settlers in the 17th century. Those tribes are, as native advocate and Pamunkey tribe member Jasmine Anderson said Wednesday, “the true First Families of Virginia.”

Primeval tribal lands that once ranged for hundreds of square miles for the Mattaponi are now reduced to a 250-acre reservation hard against the river that bears the tribe’s name. What was not destroyed by colonization was almost wiped out by administrative genocide and forced sterilizations under the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 carried out by Walter Plecker, a disciple of an evil and discredited eugenics movement that would later inform Adolf Hitler’s murderous “master race” obsession.

By those grim mileposts, what underlies today’s protests may seem trifling. But this is the United States in the third decade of the 21st century, not a dictatorship or the fictional backdrop for a novel about a dystopian not-too-distant future. And basic liberty is never too much to ask.

According to Ned’s reporting, several members of the tribe have been petitioning for at least five years for democratic elections to select tribal leaders and for the right of women to vote in them. Gloria Custalow, a 62-year-old tribe member and leader of its pro-democracy movement, told Ned that a handful of unelected men make all the decisions about tribal matters.

The dissidents describe a Kremlinesque council that privately runs everything on the reservation that is home to about 75 people. Until about two years ago, Ned reported, their meetings were generally open to male members of the tribe. Women, however, were not only disenfranchised, they were denied even the most basic information about their rulers’ decisions and how they affected tribe members. The chief, they said, has the sole right to determine who is and is not a member of the tribe and who may reside on the reservation.

“We don’t know when we’re breaking the law and not breaking the law,” Christine Custalow said. “We don’t even know what the laws are. The women aren’t told anything. We’re expected to stay in the house and keep our mouths shut.”

Jody Custalow told Ned that tribal leadership denied him and his sons tribal membership because the chief determined that their “skin was too light.”

With all other means of redress exhausted and unheard, the protest went public – something tribal leaders evidently didn’t anticipate when pressing criminal charges that a journalist in the post-election doldrums would find irresistible.

So with the consequences of speaking out unknown, Christine Custalow stood resolute against a chill breeze as a granddaughter – a toddler – held fast to one of her legs for warmth and security. Because she, her family and friends wouldn’t back down, Christine said, the chief charged them with a crime in a failed effort to intimidate. With the Capitol event just ended and the die irrevocably cast, she smiled when asked where she and the others found their courage to speak after centuries of silent suffering.

“We had to do something. I mean, look at my beautiful grandbabies,” she said. “They may want to come back to the reservation someday, they may want to be recognized. They can’t as it stands now.”

“This is history for us in the Mattaponi,” she said. “I guess, as my daddy used to say, ‘It’s the straw that broke the donkey’s back.’”

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]