Violence of Settler Colonialism Stretches Across Generations of Native Families

After Gallup, New Mexico police killed Larry Casuse on March 1, 1973, they dragged his body out of the sporting goods store where they’d shot him three times and onto the sidewalk along Route 66, where they took turns taking photos of themselves posing over his dead body. They frame one of those photos and hang it above the Gallup Fraternal order of police bar. The shootout with police that killed Larry, a 19-year-old Navajo activist, began when Larry and a comrade named Robert Nakaidinae kidnapped the Mayor of Gallup at gunpoint from right out of the Gallup mayor’s office. Emmett Garcia was also the coowner of the Navajo Inn. It was the most lucrative bar in New Mexico, and also its most well-known. Gallup calls itself “The Indian Capital of the World,” but Larry and Indians Against Exploitation, a group comprised of young Navajo and Pueblo activists that Larry organized with, called it the “City of Exploitation”. Gallup had 39 bars or liquor stores in 1973. This was 32 less than the limit of one liquor establishment per 2,000 residents under a 1956 law. Most were known as “Indian bars.” Alcohol was illegal to possess or consume on the Navajo Nation. In 1960, the reservation was home to just shy of 80,000 people. Between 1958 and 1960, Navajo officers arrested just under 25,000 people for alcohol-related offenses. By the time Larry graduated from high school in 1971, Navajo police were making 500–700 arrests per month on various liquor violations on the reservation. Gallup, who built the largest U.S. drunk tank during those years, was even more arrested. The penalty for driving drunk off the Nation was less than the penalty for possessing alcohol on it, so the safest way to bring alcohol back to the reservation was in one’s stomach. The Navajo Inn, located along a lonely and dangerous highway, was located miles north of Gallup. Winters saw many people freeze to death while walking home. Others were hit by drunk drivers on Highway 264 or were found dead in ditches. “Exposure” deaths the coroner would call them all. Gallup police and McKinley County Sheriff’s deputies called the frozen dead they found in arroyos and alleys behind the Navajo Inn “popsicles.”

Larry Casuse spent many years trying to close down the Navajo Inn. He also worked tirelessly with other young organizers to stop the commodification and desecration of Navajo traditions and ceremonies. Gallup was designed to cause misery and suffering in the Navajo people and then make a profit. Garcia was the mayor, the owner of the most violent and notorious bar, the self-appointed director of the city’s alcohol treatment center, and, in February 1973, the Governor’s nominee to join the Board of Regents of the University of New Mexico. Casuse had had enough.

In the days after his violent death, Larry’s brother Donald tried to make sense of it all and thought immediately of Gallup. “You didn’t talk about the Gallup that everyone saw, the Gallup of the drinking and the violence and the poverty. You didn’t talk about it because it just was. It was how it was. Lillian [their mother]Larry could not have accepted it, but most people accepted it. Lillian understood that the drinking problem was an Indian problem and not a political one. The violence was an Indian problem. Larry made a commitment that he would make Gallup a better place for the Navajo. Who does that for you? Who does that? How many people are willing to give their life to help people they don’t know?”

In the weeks after Larry’s death, amid the protests, the marches, the student walkouts, and the demands for investigations, Larry’s friends and family offered possible answers to Donald’s question. Some blamed Larry’s legal troubles. Less than a year earlier he’d hit and accidentally killed a young Navajo woman while driving on the road to Gamerco, north of Gallup. He felt profound guilt and it made him “excitable and high strung,” they said. He couldn’t talk about it without breaking down in tears. Others suspected that he’d grown discouraged in his failure to shut down the Navajo Inn and stop the suffering and misery the bar produced. They wondered if maybe he’d stopped seeing organizing as an answer. Maybe he’d decided he needed different tactics. According to one friend, “he thought he would have to utilize the white man’s way of doing things to get anything done—just to shake people up enough to get a few lines in the paper, to grab people in midair and say, ‘Wait a minute! Listen to me!’”

Maybe an answer could be found in the Casuse family’s move to Gallup when Larry was a teenager and where he witnessed the in-your-face misery of the bordertown. The KIVA Club issued a statement on the day that Larry was shot and killed by police. Larry, they wrote, “was tired of seeing everyday drunkards lying in the streets, lying in jails, of Indians trying to survive in a conquered oriented society.” He’d come to Gallup that day to cleanse the city of that evil, they guessed, and hoped to “make his death a symbol” for something better. Many pointed out his role in feeding people at the many protests and other actions he organized. He’d listen to the people talk to him as they ate the fry bread and mutton stew he served. Some said that it was impossible to do such work and not hate the people who governed them. Others agreed with Donald that Larry sacrificed his life to help Native people and did it because of a deeply felt need to connect to a world he’d been robbed of as a child. Born in Santa Rita, New Mexico, far south of the Navajo Nation, raised among the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children of copper miners, Larry didn’t grow up on the Navajo reservation, didn’t learn the language, didn’t participate in the ceremonies, didn’t learn the stories, wasn’t part of the traditions. However, some people found no comfort in the explanations or answers to his death. Whatever Larry’s reasons may have been, they died with him on that sidewalk in Gallup on March 1, 1973. “To this day,” his friend Phil Loretto said, years later, “I can’t figure out why he did that.”

An Enemy Such as This attempts to answer Donald’s question by telling the story of the Casuse family, a family born in the blood of colonialism, torn apart by the wars and occupations that marked the birth of a world hostile to their own. You can follow the Casuses’ generations through this book, and you will be able to see their world, one that has been altered by war and occupation. The story of Larry Casuse and his family is a story of a long, unbroken line of generations that links the shootout with police in the sporting goods store in 1973 that killed Larry to the Johnson Massacre of 1837 that killed Juan José Compá, another Native leader killed by vigilantes or police. The Johnson Massacre (examined in the book’s third chapter) established US control of the world’s most profitable copper mine, where a century later Larry would be born, where his father, Louis, would work as a miner, and where the most radical labor union in the US would organize mineworkers. The story of the Casuse family links the rough streets of Gallup, where Larry would live and die, to the war-torn streets of occupied Salzburg, Austria, in the 1930s and ’40s, where Larry’s mom, Lillian, was born into a crumbling empire and raised in another, and where Louis would patrol as an occupation soldier during the postwar occupation of Austria. Their story links the reservation trading posts of the Navajo Nation, an economy that condemned generations of Navajos to debt servitude, to company stores at Santa Rita’s copper mine, where Larry was born.

The Casuse family follows the US colonial wars of occupation. The most important moments in their lives are mapped onto the world-historical events that took place in the nineteenth century and twentieth century. Larry’s great, great grandfather, Jesus Arviso, the subject of the fourth chapter, is famous and revered among Navajos. As a child, he was taken from Mexico by his Mexican family. He was traded from the Apache to Navajo as a boy and raised among the Navajo. He became a legendary leader. Larry’s maternal grandfather, Richard Hutzler fought in two world wars. He was drafted by the Bavarian Royal Army of the German Empire into the military the day it declared war upon France in 1914. He was a lowly private who fought in the wars that ended European empires. He was discharged from the army on the day Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated, the German Empire fell apart and the day before the doomed Weimar Republic. Larry’s mother, Lillian, celebrated her third birthday watching Nazis march through the streets of Salzburg, Austria, her hometown. She celebrated her eighth year by hiding from the Allied bombs that almost destroyed Salzburg. She was just ten years old when she was attacked by the Soviets from the north and Americans from the West. This ended World War II and began the postwar occupation. Lillian’s personal story is part of the apocalyptical story of war and occupation in midcentury Europe. Both occupation and war are apocalyptic for everyone, but especially for women and girls. During the occupation, Allied troops raped tens to thousands of women. Lillian was one of the thousands of war brides who migrated to the USA from war-torn Europe after the war.

Larry’s father, Louis, fought in the two bloodiest European battles that American troops fought in World War II, was captured by the Wehrmacht in the Battle of the Bulge, and was held in a Nazi POW camp until his liberation. After the war, Louis returned to the army. Lillian met Louis in Salzburg, where he was a guard at the prisoner-of war and displaced-persons camps. Louis returned to New Mexico after he was discharged. He worked in the mine that had been made possible through the Mexican war against Apaches 100 years earlier. He was one the only two Navajo mining workers to join the radical union immortalized in the film. Salt of the EarthThis book chronicles the strike of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Against Empire Zinc. He is not mentioned in the history of that strike or that union.

Forget Plymouth Rock and all the stories of American Exceptionalism which celebrate colonization. Santa Rita, New Mexico is where settler colonialism was born. It was there that Apaches were killed by American mercenaries. It was then raised by settlers in copper mines. It was then passed on to Gallup, New Mexico, which was a horrible place of Native misery, suffering and resistance.