About Mattaponi Tribe
No right is more sacred to a nation, to a people, than the right to freely determine its social, economic, political and cultural future without external interference. The fullest expression of this right occurs when a nation freely governs itself. We call the exercise of this right Self-Determination.
The practice of this right is Self-Governance.
The Mattaponi People are a Sovereign Nation and Self-Governing Tribe.
Farce Election Held on Mattaponi Reservation
Elected Mattaponi Tribal Leadership Exposes Undemocratic Practices in Farce Tribal Election
MATTAPONI RESERVATION, VA, July 18, 2023 — The elected leadership of the Mattaponi Tribe, one of the oldest Indigenous communities in the Commonwealth of Virginia, is raising serious concerns about the legitimacy of the upcoming tribal election organized by a self-appointed group. The election, scheduled for this Saturday, is marred by several irregularities that undermine the democratic process and the rights of tribal members.
The Mattaponi Tribe, known for its rich cultural heritage and strong community bonds, has grappled with internal governance issues. Two bodies claim leadership: the elected tribal council, elected by both reservation residents and non-resident tribal members, and a self-appointed group that has seized control without having ever stood for an election by the tribal members.
The elected leadership has identified several alarming issues with the election held by the self-appointed tribal members:
The "approved voting member list" of the self-appointed body includes only 33 people, while excluding hundreds of tribal members including most lineal descendants of the tribe who are women and others who have mixed-blood.
Six people on the voting list are family members of the candidates and do not reside on the reservation, while hundreds of other non-resident members are denied a vote.
Two current members of the self-appointed governing body and candidates are state employees, clearly violating the self-appointed group's constitution barring state government employees from holding tribal office. “ Article XI Section 2. No Federal, Commonwealth or County Employees. No person shall be eligible to serve as a member of the Mattaponi Tribal Council or serve on any Tribal committee, commission, or board, if employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or by any other Federal, County, or Commonwealth agency.”
Four individuals listed on the voting list have not been registered as tribal members although they live on the reservation..
Steven Custalow, a vocal critic of the self-appointed government, who lives on the reservation has been unjustly excluded from the tribal membership list merely because he had vocally opposed the self-appointed government.
The group's decision to appoint Dave Henneman, the Assistant Chief of the Nansemond Tribe, as the election official is a clear breach of tribal customs. It is not customary for officials who are members and officials of other tribes to interfere in other tribes' governance, and his involvement further taints the election's legitimacy.
One of the candidates withdrew from the election days before because of the "corruption" according to him.
On July 22, 2023, the day of the election, only one of the election officials attended, consequently, the election result was NOT certified. The self-appointed did follow their own election procedures.
"The upcoming election is a blatant disregard for the democratic rights of our tribal members," says Chief Lonnie Custalow, elected in an open election held on March 26, 2022. "It's crucial that the broader public understands the undemocratic practices being employed. All lineal descendants of the Mattaponi tribe, regardless of race or gender, should be allowed to register and vote in tribal matters."
“The only path forward for the Mattaponi People is to unite under principles of unity and equality for all tribal members and transparency in government,” says Assistant Chief Gloria Custalow, elected in an open election held on March 26,2022. “Our children are counting on us to make this stand for democracy, where all people have a voice and vote.”
The elected leadership calls for transparency, inclusivity, and respect for democratic norms in all tribal governance matters. They urge all stakeholders, including the media, tribal communities, and advocacy groups, to scrutinize the upcoming election and its aftermath.
About the Mattaponi Tribe
The Mattaponi Tribe is one of the oldest Indigenous communities in Virginia, with a rich cultural heritage and a strong commitment to community welfare and environmental stewardship. The tribe faces governance issues, with two competing leadership bodies: the elected tribal council, recognized by hundreds of tribe members, and a self-appointed council recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia by colonial treaty. The elected leadership is committed to upholding democratic norms and ensuring the rights of all tribal members.
Mattaponi Petition for Federal Acknowledgment Filed
January 10, 2023
Dear Citizen of the Mattaponi Nation:
I and my colleagues on the constitutionally elected council of the Mattaponi Tribe took a signiﬁcant step towards gaining federal recognition for the Mattaponi by ﬁling a petition with the US Department of the Interior last week. The petition highlights our tribe's long history dating to its ﬁrst contact with European colonists in 1607 and seeks recognition of the tribe's sovereignty. If successful, this petition would establish a government-to-government relationship with the US and provide the tribe with access to funding and services available only to federally recognized tribes.
It is past time for the Mattaponi Tribe to get the recognition it deserves. Our tribe's sovereignty dates to a time before the United States existed. We are conﬁdent the petition demonstrates the tribe's continuous existence, community, and political inﬂuence as required by the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Federal Acknowledgement Process.
The petition includes the tribe's new constitution that brings democracy and transparency back to tribal governance and deﬁnes membership in the tribe to include all lineal descendants without exception. The constitution (adopted unanimously by qualiﬁed members of the tribe who voted in the certiﬁed March 2022 election) ensures that all active members of the tribe, including women, have equal rights to participate in the governance of our tribal nation regardless of whether they live on the reservation. It promises free and fair elections of tribal governance on a regular schedule, something that hasn’t happened for 40 years. Finally, the constitution prohibits discrimination in tribal governance and secures freedom of speech and due process for all members of the tribe.
Mark Custalow and two previous administrations have not moved the tribe toward federal recognition while all other eligible Virginia tribes have achieved this goal. This is true despite the fact that they received a three year, $300,000 a year federal grant for this purpose more than 15 months ago. They failed to follow up on a letter of intent to petition ﬁled with the BIA in 1995, and, in 2000, they withdrew the tribe from participating in the Thomasina Jordan Act that secured recognition for six other tribes in 2018. If Mark Custalow had the best interests of the tribe at heart, he would support our petition and work with us to unify the tribe under elected leadership.
The lack of federal recognition has hurt and continues to hurt the tribe and its members. It has precluded the tribe's participation in federal programs that could have provided vital funds and opportunities for the future of the tribe and our members, such as:
Services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs;1
Consultation on issues like the federal Census;2 and
Critical COVID-19 relief funds.3
In addition, the failure to secure federal recognition meant the tribe was ineligible for any of the $900 million in American Rescue Plan funds distributed to federally recognized tribes for housing, infrastructure, and economic development.
The constitutionally elected tribal leaders who joined in ﬁling the petition are hopeful that the petition for federal recognition will be successful and that the Mattaponi will be able to participate in these essential programs and initiatives going forward.
Our vision for the future is a uniﬁed, federally recognized tribe inclusive of all lineal descendants with an expanded reservation that has a lively cultural and community center and other facilities that beneﬁt all members of the tribe and allow us to preserve our heritage.
Please let me know if you have questions about the petition. We would be happy to meet with you and delighted to have your support of our efforts.
Very truly yours,
Chief Lionel Custalow
It has been my honor to serve the Mattaponi Tribe as the first elected Chief in nearly forty years. In 2022, we accomplished a great deal. The tribal members elected a new tribal government, ratified the tribal constitution (ensuring equal rights for all members) and now we have delivered on our promise to reunite the historic tribal family descendants by returning them to the tribal roll.
2023 will be a tremendous year as we continue to grow our tribal membership while remaining committed to the preservation of our cultural and self-determination. We walk this path together. I want all members of the tribe to feel welcomed and know they have a place within the sacred circle.
~ Chief Lionel "Wise Spirit" Custalow
For far too long, Mattaponi tribal descendants have been denied membership, shunned and rejected by the past tribal leadership. In 2021, the Mattaponi Tribal Citizens for Change organized and changed the course of history for the tribe by holding the first open and fair election in 2022, the first in nearly 40 years. The previous tribal administrations were self-appointed and NOT elected by the tribal people. Consequently, their desire to retain total control of the tribal entity and land resulted in cutting off ties with tribal descendants, except for their own immediate families, in order to maintain their control.
Under the new leadership of Chief Lionel Custalow and Assistant Chief Gloria Custalow and their Council, the Mattaponi tribal descendants are coming home to the tribe again. ALL TRIBAL DESCENDANTS ARE WELCOME IN THE MATTAPONI TRIBE. The time has come for us to expand our circle to include all of the tribal people, honor our ancestors, grow our community, preserve our lands and celebrate our culture again. Our tribe has many gifted keepers of our traditions. These traditions are meant to be shared with all, especially the next generations.
Mattaponi people come home and reclaim your place within the tribal family. We will work together to move forward from the devastating past by building a strong foundation for the future. The Mattaponi Tribe will prosper and flourish again. Download and read our first ratified tribal constitution, where it protects members from discrimination, while it provides a balance of power to ALL members.
From left: red-tailed hawk, peregrine falcon, killdeer, Steller’s jay (top), varied thrush, red-shouldered hawk, northern spotted owl, turkey vulture, turkey, golden eagle, bald eagle, great blue heron, white pelican, American crow, great horned owl, Cooper’s hawk, scrub jay (top), sapsucker, meadowlark (small pair), red-shafted flicker (top), American kestrel (brown & black), acorn woodpecker (black & white), barn owl. (Photo by Todd Pickering)