A tough choice ahead for the secretary of the commonwealth on the Mattaponi tribe’s future

April 4, 2022 12:03 am

Mattaponi Indian Tribe Chief Mark Custalow stands with Gov. Ralph Northam in a garden at the Executive Mansion during the annual tax tribute ceremony last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

One thing any politician hates is a no-win situation, one in which he or she has to decide between two opposing groups and, no matter what you decide, somebody’s going to be pissed off.

Virginia’s secretary of the commonwealth, Kay Coles James, seems to have such a decision in her future.

Kay James has been a respected, longtime conservative voice who has cycled into and out of Republican administrations in Virginia for more than 25 years. She’s not afraid to ruffle feathers if she must. And because the gathering controversy ahead of her shows no sign of working itself out, its disposition is destined for her office and, by extension, her boss, Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

It involves the bitterly personal, long-simmering dispute between divergent factions within the Mattaponi Tribe of Virginia that, over the past year, has burst into an ugly and highly public feud.

How ugly?

In February, a King William County General District Court judge sentenced tribe member Steven “Wahoo” Custalow to five days and jail and a $200 fine for violating a court-issued protective order by allegedly giving the tribe’s chief, Mark Custalow, the finger.

Last fall, the chief brought criminal charges of trespassing and assault by mob against 13 members of the tribe who protested outside his home on the sovereign reservation against the un-elected Council and called for free elections. In December, the same General District Court declined to convict the group on the misdemeanors and instead took them under advisement for a year.

The day before Thanksgiving, the Mattaponi chief presented then-Gov. Ralph Northam with the traditional tribute of wild game in lieu of state taxes – a ceremony that predates the United States – the tribe’s dissident group gathered a few hundred feet away in traditional tribal dress to air their grievances.

When someone surreptitiously recorded three meetings last year of the secretive Tribal Council and provided them to a YouTube channel known as the Mattaponi Voice, King William County authorities obtained a search warrant seeking records from global online giant Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters in an effort to learn the source of the digital recordings. Amid unflattering media inquiries, King William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Matt Kite announced that the search warrant was being voluntarily rescinded.

And so it goes.

Things aren’t getting any friendlier after tribal members protesting the current leadership known as the Spirit Crow Group unveiled a proposed tribal constitution that, among other things, extends the vote to tribal members who reside off the King William reservation and, for the first time, allows women to vote and hold tribal government office. It held an election on March 26 in which 41 tribal members chose a chief and Tribal Council members, a vote overseen by Cameron Quinn, who led the State Board of Elections under Govs. Jim Gilmore and Mark Warner.

“It is time for an end to the exclusionary and secretive practices of the past,” said Lonnie “Wise Spirit” Custalow, who was elected chief in the Spirit Crow plebiscite. “Our goal is a future in which all participate and no one is left behind or left out.”

Now, two rival councils are asserting themselves as the rightful tribal government, ratcheting tensions to an even more explosive level. The situation represents “uncharted territory,” said Claire Gastañaga, a Richmond-based lawyer advising the Spirit Crow group. And that is where James enters the picture.

The secretary of the commonwealth is the liaison to the chiefs of Virginia-recognized tribes and “oversees the process of recognizing state tribes,” Gastañaga said. The board that advises James on such decisions, however, is chaired by Brandon G. Custalow, son of the Mattaponi chief and a member of the current Tribal Council.

A Youngkin administration spokeswoman said James was not available last week for an interview about the issue.

“The folks who got elected last week are going to seek recognition, and the people on the other side are going to accuse them of misrepresenting themselves. I don’t know what will happen. Stay tuned,” Gastañaga said. “My clients hope that, ultimately, the two sides will be able to come together and focus on common interests in seeking a resolution.”

The sitting Tribal Council accused the Spirit Crow leadership slate of misrepresenting themselves less than two days after its election. In a March 28 statement, the Council called the dissidents “a group of tribal members who have pushed political grievances too far.” It promised to present a draft of its own constitution “soon” that will extend the vote to both men and women. The release did not define “soon.”

The last time there was an election for Mattaponi Tribal Council seats was 1969, said Gastañaga, a former chief deputy Virginia Attorney General and longtime executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. Since then, it’s been a patriarchal system in which leadership has followed the lineage of a few families, passed down only to male descendants like an heirloom. The reservation is subject to U.S. and state criminal laws, as the prosecutions in King William the past five months illustrate. The unelected chief and Tribal Council currently hold full, unfettered authority over tribal policy, including who is and is not allowed to reside on the reservation.

That’s where a discussion like this gets uncomfortable for folks like me, descended from Europeans who invaded the continent in the first decade of the 1600s and began overrunning and robbing native people of lands they held for many centuries. That includes what the forebears of today’s Mattaponi knew as Tsenacommacah before British settlers renamed it Virginia for England’s queen.

Any White person who presumes to lecture Native Americans on equitable forms of governance is well advised to just shut up. Sure, the U.S. Constitution embodies principles that, if heeded, strive to assure liberty and justice for all. But America’s indigenous people never had a say in it. Nor did African-Americans or women. It’s not perfect, but it has demonstrated the capacity to adapt to changing times and nobody has produced anything better.

The history I was taught to treasure asserts that our government of the people, by the people and for the people should be a birthright, no matter one’s heritage, race, gender, faith or street address.

But I think about unelected officials having people arrested for publicly gathering to air grievances; about a man jailed simply for flipping off a person in power (a claim the person convicted still vehemently denies); about a system that disenfranchises women. Then it feels wrong to remain mute.

It also helps to remember that previously voiceless Mattaponi people with far more to lose than I have subordinated their legitimate concerns about their safety and retribution by the powerful and spoken up for the cause of liberty, equity and democracy where it matters most – the place they call home.

I do not envy you the decision ahead, madame secretary. But I know that Kay James understands from her distinguished career in public service and conservative politics what it means to stand strong for freedom.

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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]