“They brought disease, raped our women, killed our brothers–the animals, murdered our elders, leveled out the vast forests, polluted our rivers, filled our air with chemicals, called us savage, pagans, Indians … Never before had we ever had an enemy such as this.” – Larry Casuse, February 13, 1973.
“We here at Wounded Knee realize that our fight is the same fight that Larry Wayne Casuse fought so bravely. At Wounded Knee we’ll honor him, our spiritual leaders will have special ceremonies for him. In this Indian way, we’ll find unity with him and all of you.” – Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Carter Camps, and Clyde Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement, March 1, 1973. (13).
When one thinks about the Red Power movement in the late 1960s through the 1970s, the first things that come to mind are the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969 by the Indians of All Tribes, or the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972 that ended in Washington, D.C. with the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), or the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee by the American Indian Movement and other Lakota activists. These events had some of the biggest media coverage and started to turn public opinion in favor of Indigenous rights. However, the story of Larry Casuse and his struggle for Native liberation has been overshadowed by these national events.
On March 1, 1973, Diné (Navajo) activist Larry Casuse became locally famous for his attempted kidnapping of Mayor Emmett Garcia of Gallup, New Mexico, a bordertown to the Navajo Nation. Larry, who was only 19 years old, and Robert Nakaidinae burst into the mayor’s office, armed. What proceeded was a tragic shootout between the police and the two men, leaving Casuse dead. They did not target Garcia randomly. Rather, as David Correia said in a 2013 article in La Jicarita,
“Garcia was not only the mayor but also part owner of the Navajo Inn, a notorious liquor store and bar located west of Gallup and just south of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Inn was among the most profitable liquor stores in the state of New Mexico. And Larry had long argued that it was a profit based in misery.”
The misery was that in the mid-1970s, Gallup had the highest alcohol mortality rate in the nation and was a product of settler-colonial violence. Following the shootout, the police dragged Larry’s body into the street to pose for pictures that hung in the Gallup police union’s bar for decades until the Casuse family was able to get it removed.
Despite being involved in the Indigenous liberation movement for over a decade, I first heard of Larry’s story in 2019 when I was attending the Native Liberation conference hosted by The Red Nation in Gallup. During the walking tour of the city, the tragic events were detailed, and it seems Larry’s story is not as well known outside of what is called the American Southwest today. Larry’s spirit lives on in New Mexico and with other Native communities. He was part of the KIVA club at the University of New Mexico (UNM), which was an Indigenous activist group on campus, and it is not uncommon to go to a protest and see Larry’s face on t-shirts, signs, or murals. He famously said only a couple of weeks before being killed, “The Indian Movement was then born … it was born because we must once again regain the balance between good and evil.” (3)
Even among those who know the events of that tragic day, many do not know the full context of what led to that moment. Correia’s book, An Enemy Such as This: Larry Casuse and the Fight for Native Liberation in One Family on Two Continents over Three Centuries, attempts to give context to this moment. Correia does not only focus on Larry’s life, but also traces the colonization of what is modern-day Arizona and New Mexico, from the original colonizers, the Spanish, to the Mexicans, to the U.S. At first, one is unsure of the formula Corriea is using, but the pieces fit together as the story unfolds. The book focuses very little on the events of March 1, 1973, but rather attempts to give the reader the history to understand why that event happened.
The book is a short read but packs a lot into it. The main themes throughout are occupation and settler colonialism. Even Larry’s dad was a World War II veteran who fought in the war and later came back to serve in allied occupied Austria, which is where he met Larry’s mom (more on that complicated story later).
The book starts with an interview with Delbert Rudy, who was the owner of the car that Larry Casuse and Robert Nadaidinae hijacked in Albuquerque. Rudy was held in the car until they arrived in Gallup, about a two-hour drive away. Rudy has never given an interview before this book. His insight and empathy for Larry are fascinating and tell us more about his cause. He said,
“I didn’t think that what they were doing was illogical … Because again they didn’t say they were going to kill the guy. Their plan was to kidnap him, get off up into the mountains, hold him hostage until everybody agreed to move the bar.”
He continued to say that Larry was a smart guy, knew where he was going, and was very clear and polite.
The book then takes a time machine back to the early Spanish colonization of the area. Though there are many Indigenous nations in the area, Correia specifically looks at the Apaches and their contested relationship with the Spanish, and later the Mexicans. As settler colonialism came to the region, markets for the scalps of Apache and other Indigenous people were codified into law. We saw this pick up under the Mexican government following their newly established independence in 1821. This is how settler colonialism functions: if your goal is to remove the current indigenous population, who will inevitably fight back in different ways, you will need to market ways to remove that population, including violence. Settler colonialism is death.
Corriera discusses the market mechanism of these blood contracts and connects them to Karl Marx’s writing at the same time. He says,
“The scalp constituted, therefore, a kind of commodity, and through piece-work wages. Chihuahua intended to produce more of them. It is interesting to note that at the same time that Curcier sought efficiencies and production increases in colonial warfare through the use of piece-work in Chihuahua, Karl Marx, writing about colonialism and capitalism half a world away, was considering precisely the same idea.” (46)
In other words, piece-wages are the idea that for each item you produce or, in this instance, for every Apache you kill, the more money you will make. Marx discusses how this type of wage serves as a way to lengthen the work day and lower wages overtime. Essentially, this incentivized settlers to work more, resulting in the killing of Indigenous people and giving them a stake in the settler economy. If the military battles did not work, then militias and settlers would finish the job. Capitalism runs through the veins of a settler-colonial economy, whether that is the physical scalps of the Indigenous people or a liquor store and bar in Gallup that is profiting off the misery of Indigenous people.
After a deeper discussion on the history of the region, Correia pivots towards the history of the Casuse family coinciding with historic colonial violence. This chapter starts with the arrival of the U.S. and has a different pace and feel to it, clearly relying on oral and written history. I found myself making a family tree in the book trying to keep people straight. Despite all the names and dates and events, the goal is quite simple: colonization, violence, and historical trauma run through the blood of an oppressed people and influence decisions in the future.
As the U.S. became the new colonizer in town following the Mexican-American War of 1848, forced removal and assimilation became the policy toward Native people. Initially, the U.S. wanted to remove the Diné to Oklahoma, which was known as Indian Territory at the time. This was where the U.S. wanted to send all Indigenous people, too. The Diné avoided this fate, but during the Civil War, Kit Carson was tasked with conducting a scorched-earth campaign against the Diné. He burned villages and slaughtered people. The Diné had no other choice than to surrender. They were then forced from their homelands in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico to eastern New Mexico. This was called the Long Walk. The Diné were able to make their way back home and established the Navajo Nation reservation, which is both the largest reservation in square miles and population today. Thousands of Diné children were sent to Indian boarding schools, including Larry’s dad, Louis, where the slogan was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
The next couple of chapters start to dig into Larry’s parents’ experience. Like so many Indigenous people, Louis Casuse faced horrible conditions at home without many work opportunities and ended up joining the U.S. military during World War II. Natives have always made up one of the highest percentages of the military, in comparison to their percentage of the U.S. population. Correia discusses how Native folks were at first excluded from the draft, but the BIA wanted to have “all-Indian divisions”; the U.S. military was still segregated, but mainly focused on African Americans. Correia goes on to say,
“The draft board relented and required that all Native men register for the draft. It promised remedial English classes for those inducted. According to some accounts, Native people served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II at a rate greater than any other group. The highest rate came from New Mexico and Arizona, where three thousand Diné men and women, 6 percent of the population entered the armed services.” (61)
Though African American units were segregated, Louis and other Natives were integrated into white units and often faced racism.
Louis was sent to a German POW camp and was there as the war was ending. Coming home, he realized that home was not much better and made his way back to Europe. Following the war, Germany and other Nazi-controlled areas were occupied by the allied forces. Louis was sent to Austria to help oversee the transition from Nazi control. As Correia says, “Occupation extends war” (92). Though the war was over, the Soviet and then U.S. occupation of Vienna continued to bring devastation. Correia went on to say, “They looted the Austrian treasury, seized homes and farms or occupation personnel, unleashed a wave of sexual violence on women and girls, and established a black-market for fuel, food, and all other essential goods.” (92)
Sexual violence in particular thrived under both Soviet and U.S. occupation. It was not uncommon for troops to commit violence or attempt to marry someone. This is what happened to Larry’s mother, Lillian. Louis was in pursuit of her when she was twelve years old and, later, her family agreed to the marriage, likely seeing a better life for her in the U.S. This was very common at this time, so common that the 1946 Alien Fiancées and Fiancés Act was passed to make it easier to marry German and Austrian women and bring them back to the States. Corriea described this,
“According to military records, US soldiers raped more than fourteen thousand women and children between 1942 and 1945. Time Magazine called the US an “army of rapists.” This pattern of sexual violence continued after the war, during a period one historian called “the rape phase of the occupation.” Every woman understood this, especially the ones who survived it all, only to become war brides.” (103)
This is the context in which Larry came into the world in 1954.
As Louis came back from Europe he, like so many Diné men, started to work in the mines owned by the Kennecott Copper Company. Some of these mines dated back to the early Spanish colonization. In these mines, there was a breakdown between Anglo, Spanish, and Diné workers, who were treated differently in that exact order. Most Diné never joined the unions, as exemplified by a statement made by an Arizona AFL-CIO delegate to their annual convention that the “Indians of Arizona and New Mexico are posing a definite threat to labor” (116). Louis was one of the exceptions and joined the Mine-Mill union. This union was radical and regularly had wildcat strikes, and has been featured in pop culture, including the 1954 film Salt of the Earth. The film is great at chronicling a strike against Empire Zinc in Hanover, New Mexico, but “none of these take up the role or experience of Navajo mineworkers in the union. If they are mentioned at all it is in passing or in a footnote” (117). This is just another example of the erasure of Indigenous people even in supposedly left-wing spaces. These compounded experiences shaped the way that Indigenous people like the Casuse family and others have resisted settler colonialism.
The book comes full circle back to Gallup on that fatal day on March 1, 1973, and finally starts to highlight Larry’s life, struggle, and radicalization. Like his ancestors, Larry grew up in Navajo Nation and went in and out of Gallup, the self-proclaimed “Indian Capital of the World.” He saw the realities of the predatory systems of capitalism and settler colonialism and the monopolies of the trading post systems on reservations, which forced Natives into debt requiring purchases with undisclosed interest rates. There was very little difference between this and the trading post policies of the late 1800s, all approved and licensed by the BIA. A 1973 report by the Federal Trade Commission called them “formidable and abusive trade practices” (147). The BIA did nothing.
When we consider the Red Power movement, we need to include Larry Casuse in the same conversation as Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Madonna Thunderhawk, Clyde Bellecourt, and Leonard Peltier.
On top of this was the epidemic of alcoholism and the white-owned businesses that profited off this. The Diné at the time “suffered from alcoholism at a rate twenty times higher than the US average” (141). This led to the rise of “Indian rolling,” which were white vigilantes killing unhoused Diné. Since the Navajo Nation was a dry reservation, many would leave these bars and get hit by drivers in rural New Mexico. Others were arrested by the police. “In 1979, Gallup cops arrested more than 26,000 people, more than 90 percent of whom were Navajo” (144). This is the culture of a bordertown and what settler colonialism in its raw form looks like: a white settler population stealing land and then profiting off the land and misery of the Indigenous population.
This led Larry to find outlets to fight back, including the KIVA club at the UNM. He also joined the group Indians Against Exploitation (IAE) and organized with the Indian Center, which became known by Mayor Garcia as a “hotbed” of Indian militancy. These groups fought to shut down the Navajo Inn and combat alcoholism in the community through systematic demands. They fought against the commercialization of Navajo culture in Gallup and other surrounding communities. Like so many young people at the time, they were called naïve and told to continue to wait.
All of these events led to Larry’s actions on March 1, 1973. Following the shootout, the police claimed that Larry died from a self-inflicted wound, but the facts did not match based on the weapon he had and the findings from the coroner. Following the events, many non-Natives in town went around saying that Larry got what he deserved. As they dragged Larry’s body into the street,
“They cradle their rifles and shotguns on their hips and pose over Larry’s body, some with serious looks, others smiling broadly. A photographer from the Gallup Independent takes their picture over and over again. Trophies of dead Indians. Like the presidios and churches that ran Apache scalps up flag poles 150-years earlier, a framed photo of Larry’s body surrounded by his killers will hang above the bar at the Fraternal Order of Police for years while off-duty cops get drunk looking at it.” (174)
Following Larry’s murder, hundreds attended the funeral march in Gallup to continue Larry’s fight. Robert Nakaidinae, Larry’s partner, was arrested and interviewed by Mayor Garcia, who continued to push Robert to say that they were trying to kill him. Robert never relented and said that was not their intention, and that Larry was murdered and did not kill himself. Robert’s sentence was shortened and he was released on parole in June 1974. While he was in prison, he wrote music and many songs about Larry. In his final conversation with Mayor Garcia, he played one he wrote in prison that was “not just about Larry Casuse but of him” (179). The book ends with the sheet music to that song.
This review is merely the tip of the iceberg and folks need to read the book. It does such a great job of being a book that is not just about an individual, but a people and their struggle with colonization. Larry’s actions were part of the Indigenous resistance since the first Europeans came to Turtle Island. When we consider the Red Power movement, we need to include Larry Casuse in the same conversation as Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Madonna Thunderhawk, Clyde Bellecourt, and Leonard Peltier.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by City of Albuquerque; modified by Tempest.