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Field Trip: Mattaponi Indian Reservation


The leader of one of the homeschooling groups to which we belong set up this field trip today (Saturday) to the Mattaponi Reservation Museum near West Point, VA, and the price was right, so we decided to go along for the adventure. It took 90 minutes to get there, and it was turned out to be worth every second of the trip. We had an awesome time, and I have lots of pictures to share with you. So sit back, grab a cuppa, and scroll down. We arrived 30 minutes before the rest of our group, all of the rest of whom lived much closer, so we sat and parked at the Reservation church, facing the small cemetery. 

I noted with interest that nearly all of the last names on the headstones was "Custalow," which turned out to be the significant, main last name of the Mattaponi Tribe, which is the last remnanat of one of the 32 tribes once ruled by the great Chief Powhatan. (If that name doesn't sound familiar, it should if you've been reading here, as we learned about him on our field trip to the Jamestown Settlement earlier this school year.)


The girls went on the swings of the Reservation school with some of the other children while we waited on a few more families. Jack hung back, cranky and tired, with his dad.


I really didn't know exactly what to expect from this field trip, other than that we were visiting an Indian Reservation. I didn't know we were going inside what seemed like this teeny-weeny museum, or what else we would be doing. So I just went with the flow. Here we are, entering the Mattaponi Indian Museum, which was much larger inside than it looked from afuera.


As you can see from the sign just inside, on the front door, Custalow was indeed the major last name of the Mattaponi Indian tribe, once ruled by the powerful Chief Powhatan.


A more descriptive explanation of the tribe; George, who you'll "meet" at the end of the post, was the son of the Chief who died in 1969. Two of his brothers later became Chief of the tribe.


I took this picture of Jack examining the bear's head, then listened to him telling me how dry the tongue was, and then noticed the "Do Not Touch" sign he was obscuring. Whoops.


There were several old wasps' nests hanging inside the museum ceiling. The children were very concerned about this at first, until I explained they were no longer inhabited by their former owners, and no stings would be happening this day.


Having touched a much smaller living specimen at the Living Museum a week prior, Sophia was fascinated by this "ginormous" horseshoe crab!


Jack, still unsure about those wasp nests...


A small diorama of a Mattaponi homestead provided interest to the girls. In front of another family's dad, I asked Sophia what she saw there. She said, "It's about Jesus' birth!" and the other dad laughed and laughed. She was so embarrassed, she ran away and hid, almost in tears. He felt bad about it, and so did I, but it was pretty cute.


"Mom, look at all these spears!"


The girls had no reservations (sorry) about touching the mounted deer head, and they were especially curious about touching his eyes and how cold he was.


There was a plethora of relics and artifacts to capture the eye and keep our attention throughout the visit. I'll show you plenty, up close. George "W." Wa-huh-sun-a-cock Custalow, museum curator and son of the chief who died in '69, told us that he kept the museum open on weekends only, unless a large group was coming, because daily opening wouldn't pay enough. He also shared that Richmond government helped pay for the display cases to keep the treasures preserved, since the tribe couldn't afford to do so alone.


The card reads, "Mercy Tomahawk used for mercy killing when braves were wounded in battle" - yowza. How'd you like that?


Spelling variants and errors were common in the museum, because, of course, English was not their, um, native language, and common spellings varied regionally. Anyway, do you remember the picture of Sophia dressed up like Pocahontas at Jamestown, with the necklace and all? We come full circle. I just have found all the learning we've done on this subject this year so fascinating and incredibly, richly educational - for me, personally. I just hope the kids have gotten as much out of it.


Incredible beadwork on a leather bag


I found a few things like this and thought they were, to be quite trite, very cool.


The club Captain Smith was supposed to have been executed with before Pocahontas pleaded on his behalf


A rudimentary canoe, for which Richmond supplied the preserving case


Sharks' teeth found "90 feet below the Mattaponi River Bed" (how??) and some yellow jasper found on the Res.


More sharks' teeth (still, how??), semi-precious stones, and yellow jasper found in Oklahoma in 1962. How they all wound up here was not explained.


I didn't see anything explaining whose skull and bones were in this case; I was just glad they weren't mine!


The card reads, "Statue of Chief Powhatan as he stood on the banks of Jamestown in 1607 to welcome the settlers."


A petrified turtle body, which invited an explanation of the different meanings of "petrified" to the kids


The card reads, "Indian Hunting Outfit: Quivver [sic], arrows, tommahawk [sic] and bow."


More native dress


The card tells us that these ornately beaded moccasins were passed down for three generations over 135 years, the beads were put on with "strip sinews of red deer" and last worn by a Mattaponi Indian princess.


Old coins


An eel pot, which George said they used for catching turtles, a better tasting meat, along with a Pomogan war weapon


The card reads, "Feathered Head-Dress (with horns symbolizing war" worn by Indian Warrior Opechaneough in 1622."


More heavily beaded bags, along with come "Japenese [sic] cigarettes" from 1943, evidently brought back from war by one of the Custalow sons.


Beaded bags; as someone who does handwork, I can appreciate how much time it must have taken to create these works.


Some arrows, weapons and pottery, among other relics


Various tools and weaponry hung from the museum ceiling, near the front.


I'm not exactly sure now what it was, but the card reads, "Hand Made by Brodia Newton, Father of Elizabeth Newton Custalow." Speaking of the Newtons, they were cousins to the Mattaponi Tribe out of Fredericksburg, and one famous Newton you'll know is Wayne, the Las Vegas relic himself, who denied his heritage for years and claimed to have come from Virginia Beach. George W. did not have a lot of good things to say about Wayne Newton, not at all.


An English-made portrait of Pocahontas and her son, Thomas Rolfe


Newspaper articles about Chief Custalow - George W.'s father - and the Pamunkey Tribe, also formerly ruled by the powerful chief Powhatan


The card reads, "Morter-Pestal [sic] used for grinding corn by hand"

As I made my way up to the front to find some postcards to send to my good friend Erin, who has a collection, I snapped some photos of the other items for sale in the small museum. Here are a few:





Dreamcatchers, which prompted Jack to ask George W., "How do they catch your dreams? I mean, how do the dreams get out of your head?" We all kind of just looked at each other and laughed, leaving the boy to wander off, scratching his sweet head...


Gorgeous beaded earrings, which I admit, I coveted a bit.


Thunderbird Necklaces, which made me think of my mamacita, Rob's mom, and her Boy Scout Camp Thunderbird...


More beaded handiwork; admittedly not the best photo...


I'm not sure where the $6 Head-dress was, but the canoes were $5 each, and a little girl proudly bought one with her own money while we spoke with George.

I found this trio of Cherokee prayers on wooden tablets; I could see these in my home:




I was amused when the jolly former chief's son, George, asked me about 3/4 of the way through our lengthy conversation if I believed in the "Great Spirit," pointing upward, telling me he didn't want to talk to me anymore if I didn't. I assured him that indeed, I did; I do. His father was also a minister; it was very important to him.



I made my way quickly around the small museum again, snapping anything of interest I missed on the first pass through, when I was equally interested in keeping the kids from touching anything they oughtn't. By this point, they were exploring outside, and I was free to do my exploring unpestered. I mean, uh,... yeah.


It reads, "Jewelry, Treasured, Belongs, for the women and girls, was kept in this {turtle} shell."


This one reads, "Treasure Chest used by the squaws of the Chiefs 1607 - ??46"




"Historic Mattaponi Indian Tom-Tom - over 200 yrs. old"


See the leaf-shaped white objects? The card reads, "Teeth from indian Marsh Hog used for necklaces." Cool.



A tray of various-sized arrowheads


Click to embiggerate, if you can't read the sign here.


I'm not sure if this was an Indian girl skirt or just what. The letter was a thank-you note for a visit from a long-ago group, so it wasn't any help, but still, it's beautiful.


This was a portrait of George W.'s mother, who died when he was 8, having hemmorhaged to death hours after giving birth to her 13th child. Very sad. Chief Custalow later remarried and had a 14th child. (I believe George was #8 or 9 in the family. He shared that five of his brothers then went to war at the same time, and as a young boy, he couldn't understand why his father spent so much time by himself, crying.)


A carving of Chief O.T. Custalow


Photograph of Powhatan's Chimney


I didn't see this on the first tour 'round the museum, but I sure caught how it sparkled in the light on the second pass. I've seen plenty of this sort of artwork for sale at the Pow-Wows we've attended here in the Beach.


This was an actual treaty! Fascinating. I love the peace pipes, and trying to figure out the rest. Fascinating!


A similarly-depicted of the story of Pocahontas' intercedence on behalf of John Smith. Priceless.



Oh, here's another kind of eel-pot. George, having discovered that I don't eat raw tomatoes, or mayo, or beef or pork, asked me if I had ever eaten eel. No, of course not, but now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I have had eel sushi. We've exchanged phone numbers; maybe I'll call him up and let him know, because his next question was an amused-but-demanding, "Well, what DO you eat?" to which Rob replied, "Not much!" I redeemed myself by sharing that I had eaten frog legs on a cruise once, which started George on another story about gigging for frogs.



This hand-carved canoe also hung from the ceiling.


I'm not sure what the sign fully says, but it belonged to George W.'s dad, the Chief O.T. Custalow - the weapon, that is.


The card reads, "The back scales of a 200-lb sturgeon caught by Chief Custalow May 8, 1964."


A carving by a Seminole (blah!) Indian. Sorry for the (blah!) but I'm a Hurricane; it's a learned response.


At that point, I went out to check on the kids, who were out there with their dad. The Littles were swinging lazily in the sun, so I went off to find Chloë.


She had come in while we were engaged in conversation with George W. the first time, carrying one of these things, and he said he had no idea what it was. He immediately broke off a piece and ate it, telling us it tasted bitter, "like acorns. Have you ever eaten an acorn?" he asked me. I admitted that I had, as a young kid. Mattaponi eat them regularly, or at least they once did. Anyway, we're supposed to look up these things, because the childrenc collected bunches of them, but I haven't done that yet...



Small teepees in the yard outside the museum. Want a closer look? Okay:


I wanted to crawl inside, but I dared not.


How cool is this? I'll tell you how cool: pretty cool. Hee.


The kids were happy and safe playing outside the back of the museum, and I wanted to talk to the captivating chief's son some more, so I went back in and stole his attention for another hour or two. Really! Until Jack rammed his head into me one too many times, telling me how hungry he was, I chatted him up. I told Rob they could go have lunch and come back for me later, and I was only half-kidding!


This was behind the counter with George Custalow, who told me that it was funeral regalia, stressing the "regalia" and somberly cautioning me against ever calling it a "costume." (I hadn't. He was just warning me how offensive it was to Native Americans.)


This was the old car George had, which had a tree fall on it during the recent Hurricane Irene. He and his son are fixing it up. He said they wanted to haul it away to auction and give him $900 for it, but he stood his ground, got much more insurance money for it than that, and kept the car. Then he pointed to his head and said, "This isn't a hat rack; I use it for thinking!" with a wink.


I look terrible in this picture, but George, who recently turned 79, looks great. He kissed me on the cheek several times as we were saying our good-byes, and when Rob left the building to get the kids in the van, he told me, "now turn your face to me," and when I did, he planted one right on the lips! I just laughed giddily. He was sweet on me, definitely. I told Rob about it later, but he didn't believe me! What a guy. Both of them.

Hope you enjoyed our tour a fraction as much as I did. We'll definitely be seeing this guy again; keep your eyes open for a return to the Mattaponi later this year for their annual Pow-wow, the day before Father's Day.