Mattaponi crafter continues tradition and enjoys hard work

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With a thread of sinew and a circular frame made from grapevines, "Edith
"White Feather" Custalow Kuhns weaves the webbing of a dream catcher.

A member of the Mattaponi Indian Tribe and a descendant of Pocahontas,
Kuhns spends time each day crafting a variety of items that she sells at
her booth at area pow wows. She's attended pow wows since she was a child
and says there's a lot of preparation throughout the year for the pow wow
season, which for her begins in April and ends in August.

"When the pow wows are back to back, it makes it hard because you have to
make most of the items yourself," she said.

She creates a variety of handmade items such as bolos, belts, buckles,
jewelry, barrettes, hair combs and necklaces that feature intricate
bead-work - a craft she has continued since she was five years old. Her
grandmother taught her how to do beadwork, and at times when she takes a
break from the tedious beading, she makes other items like the dream
catchers.

"The bad dreams are caught in the webbing and good dreams stay in the
feathers with you," she said. "I work on beadwork all year long. I give
myself so many hours a day on the bead work. But some days, I don't work on
it at all to give my eyes a break because it is very tedious work. But it's
also therapy for me, too."

Her beadwork includes floral patterns particular to the Woodland Indians,
of which the Mattaponi are one tribe. But she said she likes doing all the
different Indian patterns to see what she can do.

"They're like a challenge," she said.

She also makes medicine wheels, burden baskets, turtle purses, small
spears, gourd rattles, turtle rattles, ceremonial pipes and pottery made
with clay from the Mattaponi Indian Reservation in King William County, Va.

Kuhns is also the owner and operator of the American Heritage shop in
Virginia Beach which she took over from her son, the late Donnie "Bright
Path" Kuhns, who passed away in 1999.

Kuhns said she spends about six hours the day before a pow wow just packing
up items. She's been a vendor at pow wows since the early 1980s. Because
she doesn't camp out at the pow wows, she then spends another several hours
before the pow wow grounds open setting up.

"Then, when it's time to go, it takes hours to pack back up," she said.
"That's what's time-consuming - packing up the crates. But you want to use
care to make sure you don't break anything."

For Kuhns, all the effort for preparing for a pow wow is worth it. At the
pow wows, she said she gets to see all of her Indian and non-Indian friends
that she hasn't seen in a while.

"I enjoy doing the pow wows, and if I don't go, I'll feel like a part of me
is missing," she said.

As a child and the daughter of the late Mattaponi chief, Webster "Little
Eagle" Custalow and sister to Mattaponi chief Carl "Lone Eagle" Custalow,
Kuhns, family members and other Virginia Indians attended pow wows years
ago on the Mattaponi Reservation that served as celebrations. Any beadwork
or items they had made, they gave away as gifts.

"We celebrated the four seasons," she said. "At the end of the season when
we had a good crop, all the tribes would get together and bring food. It
would go on for a week or two. We'd dig a big pit; put our logs down to
build a big fire. We'd have our dances around the fire."

Her tribe also held celebrations for births and marriages.

The Mattaponi opened its pow wow - the only one held on a reservation in
Virginia - to the public in the 1980s, and the Mattaponi Indian Tribe pow
wow is held each June.

"We started opening up the pow wow to the public to show our way of life;
in the pow wow, we carry our true spirit in the dance arena, so others can
be better informed of our ways," she said. "But what we are bringing is not
a show; we are bringing our spirituality, our oldest teachings, so that
they may learn the things that have been taught to us through generations.
We are giving them a part of ourselves."

Kuhns said setting up her booth at the pow wows also gives her the
opportunity to show her craftwork and to mingle with other people.

"We are given a path in life; no one can choose your path for you or tell
you when and how to walk it," Kuhns said. "It's yours alone to challenge at
your own pace and time. What you do with your life is entirely in your
hands."