Editor’s note: The official Mattaponi Tribe does not recognize the election that Raven Custalow helped organize and participated in.
KING WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — For Raven Custalow, the Mattaponi Reservation in Central Virginia has always been home.
“I was born and raised on the reservation here in King William County,” Custalow said as she overlooked the banks of the Mattaponi River. “In our language, it means like the resting place or the landing place. A lot of our elders will call it the ‘river of high banks.’ The river is our lifeway, and has always sustained our people.”
From a young age, Custalow learned the ins and outs of the Mattaponi tribe from her grandmother, who she fondly calls ‘Nanny.’ Custalow would take weekly classes with her siblings and friends to learn about customs, tribal life and traditions.
“We would learn pottery and beadwork,” she explained. “We would learn how to make our Regalias. We would do dance practice. So, that was something, you know, every week we look forward to going to class. What kid wants to go to class? It was a cultural class. So, it was fun.”
As Custalow got older, the classes slowly came to an end. It’s the reason she wanted to start her own non-profit, Eastern Woodlands Revitalization, to keep her grandmother’s teachings going. She recalls a pivotal moment in her childhood when she misplaced a bead.
“I think it was supposed to be a red bead, but I put an orange bead. I was like, ‘Nanny, I messed up. How am I going to fix it?’ She was like, ‘What did you do?’ I told her I misplaced a different color bead. She said, ‘That’s called your spirit bead. It’s meant to be there. You don’t want to change that.’ I just remember that sitting with me, but she was very influential in the cultural piece.”
Custalow now travels across the Commonwealth to schools and libraries teaching the younger generation the new and old ways of tribal life. She says she’s driven by her mission to help.
“It’s so hard to compete in modern-day society with video games or sports or whatever it may be on the outside, and to bring that interest back to culture,” she explained. “I think that’s where we really grew from that and saw that need.”
Custalow saw another need.
Last year, she helped organize the first open council election in which Mattaponi women could run and vote. While the election isn’t recognized by the official Mattaponi Tribe, Custalow says it’s the first time it’s been a reality in almost a century.
She made the decision to cast her ballot with her two children in tow.
“It was important for me to show them that so that they can carry that on for themselves and their future,” Custalow said.
Her accomplishments in her community only add to her success at work.
Custalow is a full-time nurse practitioner at Aylett Family Wellness, a clinic opened by the Upper Mattaponi tribe. It focuses on the underserved, and on an area that has historically lacked access to healthcare.
“Native people are prone to certain health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, cancers,” she explained.
Custalow adds her familiarity with patients makes her role that much more rewarding.
“For me, as an indigenous person, to serve other native people,” Custalow said. “I understand the community they’re coming from and some of the disparities we face. I think that’s an asset for this community. I understand them. A lot of them I’ve grown up with. I know them. They’re my family.”
Between nursing, teaching and advocating, you could say Custalow focuses on the cultural and physical well-being of her people. She credits her success to the generations of women who came before her.
“I’m surrounded by so many strong people, you know, strong women, strong Mattaponi women. It’s their journey, and I hope I represent them in a good way because it’s their journey that’s created me and molded me to be who I am.”
Custalow was nominated by her husband, Chris. They share two beautiful children together.