Otha Thomas "Blue Wing," Custalow, also known as Hos-Ki-No-Wa-Na-Ah, Hos-Ki-No-Wana-H, or Hos-Ki-Wa-Naah (17 March 1898–18 October 1969), Mattaponi chief, was the son of George F. "Thunder Cloud" Custalow and Emma L. "Water Lily" King Custalow and was born on the reservation in King William County that had been set aside for the Mattaponi by an act of the General Assembly in March 1658. He probably attended school on the neighboring Pamunkey reservation and for much of his life was identified on census returns and in other official records as a freshwater fisherman. For about fifteen years, probably beginning in the 1920s, he toured the country as a professional wrestler, and for a time he was also a traveling salesman.

On 23 June 1918 Custalow married Marie Jane Miles, or Min-Ne-Ha-Ha, also a Mattaponi. They had seven sons and six daughters before her death on 6 January 1943. The Virginia Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, passed in 1924, classified as colored all Virginians not demonstrably 100 percent "white," thereby subjecting them to discriminatory racial segregation laws. Walter Ashby Plecker, the registrar of vital statistics, entered a memorandum on the state's copy of the marriage record to alter Custalow's identification as a Mattaponi: "Custalow-Miles—These are colored people descendants of free negroes. See Racial files for Kg Wm Co." The latter part of the memorandum referred to records and other unofficial materials Plecker had accumulated that convinced him that there were no Native Americans in Virginia who were not also descendants of African Americans. Custalow may never have learned of the alteration of his marriage record, but he certainly knew about Plecker's campaign to reclassify Virginia's Native Americans as African Americans.

Custalow became assistant chief of the Mattaponi early in the 1940s and acting chief on the death of his father in 1949. Soon thereafter he was elected chief. At his father's funeral in March 1949, after the conclusion of the Christian portion of the service, Custalow offered a Mattaponi prayer that was reported to be the first such ceremony in a century and a half. Although sometimes criticized for wearing headdresses and other clothing not always clearly authentic to Powhatan traditions, and even suspected of having made up the funeral prayer, Custalow was a skillful showman and persisted during his quarter century as chief in exploiting every opportunity to publicize the Mattaponi and cultivate a public perception of Virginia's Native Americans as a distinct people with an honorable history. He and other leaders of the Mattaponi and chiefs of the Pamunkey annually presented the governor with gifts of wild fish and game in a ceremony that usually attracted press attention and offered him opportunities for gaining publicity. Achievements of Virginia tribes during the period, which were early years of heightened Native American consciousness and little intertribal cooperation, included federal recognition of the right to vote in 1948, state adoption of a more-expansive definition of Indians in 1954, and an exemption in 1957 from having to purchase county automobile license plates.

On 11 February 1954, in Vance County, North Carolina, Custalow married Elizabeth Newton Scheneman, a divorced woman with two sons and aunt of the performer Wayne Newton. They had one son. In 1960 he was ordained and later became pastor of the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church, of which his brother Harvey Nathaniel Custalow had been minister. Custalow and his wives had Mattaponi names, and they gave their children a combination of English and tribal names. One son was called Sitting Bull and another Thundercloud.

Custalow founded the Mattaponi museum on the reservation. Separately and together with his daughter Gertrude Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow he presented programs to educate people about the history and culture of the Mattaponi. Custalow's serious educational objectives were occasionally undermined by his showmanship, as when he exhibited at the museum what he identified without any authenticating provenance as the very club with which Powhatan intended to pound out the brains of Captain John Smith.

Custalow's son-in-law Curtis Lee "War Horse" Custalow (husband of Gertrude Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow) succeeded him as chief, and Custalow's younger brother Daniel Webster "Little Eagle" Custalow in turn succeeded Curtis Custalow. The two chiefs carried on the work that he advanced and forged new alliances with other tribes in Virginia and with others elsewhere as Native American organizations became increasingly active and national in outlook.

Otha Thomas "Blue Wing" Custalow died of a heart attack in a Richmond hospital on 18 October 1969. After funeral services at the Mattaponi Indian Baptist Church, he was buried in the church cemetery. In settling his estate (which had an estimated value of $150,000), the family and the local judge, bolstered by an official opinion of the state attorney general, carefully distinguished between Custalow's property that was subject to taxation and his property that, because he was a resident of the reservation, was exempt under terms of the 1658 act of the assembly.


Sources Consulted:
Birth date confirmed by Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics (BVS); variant birth date of Mar. 1897 in United States Census Schedules, King William Co. (1900), Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; family information provided by daughter Gertrude Minnie Ha-Ha Custalow and widow Elizabeth Newton Custalow (both 2004); BVS Marriage Register, King William Co. (1918), with memorandum (quotation); Marriage Register (1954), Vance Co., N.C.; feature articles and editorials in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 24 May 1940, 14 Dec. 1954, 23 Jan. 1960, 11 May 1964, 25 May 1969, Richmond News Leader, 24 Mar. 1949, Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, 5 Mar. 1962, and West Point Tidewater Review, 14 May 1964; Indian School Files, ser. 1, Department of Education, Record Group 27, Accession 29632, Library of Virginia; Opinions of the Attorney General (1970), 277–278; Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (1990), esp. 239–240, 261; obituaries in Richmond News Leader, 18 Oct. 1969 (portrait), Newport News Daily Press and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 19 Oct. 1969, and Washington Post and West Point Tidewater Review, both 23 Oct. 1969; memorials in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 26 Oct. 1969, and Virginia Baptist Annual (1969), 136.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Brent Tarter.

How to cite this page:
Brent Tarter,"Otha Thomas Custalow (1898–1969)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2006, rev. 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Custalow_Otha_Thomas, accessed [today's date]).


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