Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America

December 2, 2000 - Issue 24


Friendly Tradition Settles Virginia Tax Bill


RICHMOND, Va. Nov. 22 For 354 years, the Mattaponi Indians have paid an annual tribute of pelts or game to Virginia's governor. And for more than 80 years, Webster Little Eagle Custalow has been there for a ceremony, like today's, that is more about the symbolism of friendship than settling a tax bill.

Custalow nearly didn't make it today. Just weeks ago, the 88-year-old chief of the Mattaponi was fixing gutters at his home on the 155-acre reservation in King William County, east of Richmond. He tumbled from the ladder and landed headfirst on a concrete driveway. The fall broke a bone in his neck and almost did even worse.

Yet Custalow made the trip today to the south portico of the State Capitol. He wore a headdress of wild turkey feathers, a brace around his neck and a sports coat against the cold wind.

"We're presenting today a deer to the governor," said the diminutive Custalow, barely visible behind a portable lectern. "With pleasure, we make this tribute today to you."

Two younger Mattaponi held up a deer shot on the reservation and fastened by rope to a log. More than 100 Indians from several tribes looked on.

Chief William "Swift Water" Miles of the Pamunkey tribe also presented a slain deer to the governor. Miles himself killed the Pamunkey deer Tuesday on the tribe's reservation in King William County.

The tradition dates back to 1646, when the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey tribes signed a treaty with Virginia's Colonial government and first offered a tribute of 20 beaver pelts. More recently, it has been wild turkey or deer.

Today, both the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey, who also have their reservation in King William County, offered a deer. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) and first lady Roxane Gilmore received the tribute, which is to cover the property taxes for the reservations. The two deer will become meals for the needy through a program called Hunters for the Hungry.

"It's a great celebration of our tradition here in Virginia right now at Thanksgiving time," Gilmore said to applause.

After the ceremony concluded with drums and dancing, the sound system cut off before Custalow had a chance to read a prayer about the Great Spirit. He read it anyway to the few who could hear as Gilmore stood nearby, fielding questions from reporters about the presidential election struggles in Florida and the prospect of federal recognition for Virginia's Indian tribes.

Custalow eventually sat back down, again praised the Great Spirit, then told of another tax tribute day eight decades earlier, when he was 8. That year, Custalow said, hunters could not find deer or wild turkey anywhere on the reservation.

His father, then the chief, had nearly given up when the young Custalow headed into the woods with his single-barrel shotgun and some birdshot the night before the tribe was to head to the Capitol.

Custalow came across a flock of quail that evening, but when they flew off, he didn't fire a shot. He followed them instead. Crawling on his belly, he saw the flock huddled together, preparing for sleep. Custalow fired, killing 12 quail that he strung up for that year's tribute to the governor.

Today, as the wind chilled many younger men and women, Custalow said the tradition of honoring Virginia's governor and reaffirming the tribe's historic friendship with European settlers made yet another trip to the Capitol worth the trouble.

"It is hard on me," he said, shedding a tear, "but the Great Spirit, bless His heart, takes care of me."

Pamunkey Tribe
Mattaponi Tribe



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