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Mattaponi women to vote in tribal elections for the first time in over a century

Person holds smoldering object
Lonnie "Wise Spirit" Custalow offers sage, an ancestral blessing, to police after a meeting where officers escorted members out of a tribal meeting at the request of Mattaponi Chief Mark “Falling Star” Custalow. Tribe members seeking new leadership nominated Lonnie to be the next chief. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

Update: This article was updated Mar. 25 at 10:44 a.m. to include a comment from current tribal leaders

Mattaponi tribal members and lineal descendants will hold their first open elections in nearly 50 years this Saturday. It will be the first time Mattaponi women can participate in what some members believe to be over 100 years.

After months of unanswered questions, peaceful protests and multiple police encounters, tribal descendants sought to reclaim their right to self-determination and sovereignty.

Rumblings of impropriety surfaced publicly when social media pages, known as Mattaponi Voice or “Spirit Crow,” posted allegations that Chief Mark “Falling Star” Custalow and the tribal council deceived the tribe for years.

In support of the allegations, several tribal descendants posted personal and family accounts of being denied membership and reservation lots at the whim of council. Connie “Crow Woman” Jackowski-Custalow, a tribal descendant who grew up on the reservation, says she was denied a lot when seeking a place of her own.

“They get to pick and choose, and that's what they have done,” Jackowski-Custalow said.

She and four other Mattaponi women are running for council; they would be the first women to sit on tribal council in over a century.

Jackowski-Custalow’s sister, Gloria “Moonlight” Custalow, was nominated for assistant chief. Gloria and her mother, Christine, are two of the few Mattaponi women with lots on the reservation.

Jackowski-Custalow says it's time to “go back and vote the old fashioned way.”

“Give the women a voice and include us non-resident people,” she said, referencing the 150-acre reservation. “There's no way we're going to fit right here.”

Earlier this month, current council members invited the Spirit Crow group to engage in political discussions, adding that descendants can only enroll for tribal membership through the Mattaponi Petition Office in the tribal center. The chief and council also invited reservation residents to a council meeting, handing out copies of a proposed constitution.

Person walking out of door
Police escort Connie “Crow Woman” Jackoski-Custalow and others without reservation residences out of the Mattaponi tribal center before a tribal council meeting about the constitution. Before police arrived, a woman who identified herself as a lawyer for the tribe, attempted to physically keep Connie from entering. Connie filed charges with the King William County magistrate against both the tribal lawyer and a tribal council member later that day. (Photo: Alex Scribner/VPM News)

When non-resident members of the tribe, including Terrie Custalow, attempted to attend the meeting, the chief called county and state police, who escorted them out of the tribal center.

“I want my grandkids to be able to come down here and learn their history: pottery, beadwork, fishing, the whole nine yards,” she said.

Terrie and her son, Travis “Wind Walker” Custalow, who is running for council, were both excluded from the meeting despite applying and paying for membership. They also told VPM News they have yet to receive their tribal cards. Travis and his wife are expecting a baby soon.

“Even if we wanted to come back home, we can't,” he said. “Because there's not enough room on the reservation, we had to find housing elsewhere. We should not be penalized in voting and having our voice heard in the tribe.”

In an email to VPM News, Chief Custalow and the Mattaponi Tribal Council urged the Spirit Crow group to come together with current tribal leadership.

“History teaches that Indian tribes achieve progress and prosperity only through the united efforts of their citizens and likewise teaches that division serves only to thwart progress and growth,” the email read. “The Tribal Council urges the Spirit Crow group to choose a path of unity and progress for our people.”

There is a well-established relationship between the tribe and the state, dating back to the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation. That relationship - and the tribe’s right to govern themselves - is formally recognized by an annual tribute ceremony held at the Executive Mansion. Only the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian tribes participate in the ceremony, as they are the only two that retained the land promised in the treaty.

Late last year, several Mattaponi tribal descendants and allies marched through the reservation, delivering notices to the chief and council stating they no longer recognized them as tribal leaders. Subsequently, they protested the tribute ceremony. At the Bell Tower in Capitol Square, they called for new leadership moments after the ceremony’s conclusion, alleging a list of abuses against the tribe.

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 their upcoming election."

The group nominated Lionel "Wise Spirit" Custalow, or Lonnie, for chief. As a descendant from both of the Custalow families (those with the same surname in this article are not immediately related unless indicated), he learned from Elders how to bow hunt, net fish and craft the heartbeat of the tribe: its drum.

Election details and candidate information are available online, and a “Tribal Enrollment Committee” is processing new membership applications in preparation for the election.