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 framed one of those photos and hung it above the bar at the Gallup Fraternal Order of Police. 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. The Mayor, Emmett Garcia, was also the co-owner of the Navajo Inn, the most profitable bar in the state of New Mexico and also its most notorious. 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”. In 1973, Gallup had 39 bars and liquor stores, 32 more than allowed under a 1956 law limiting liquor establishments to one per every 2,000 people. Most were known as “Indian bars.” Alcohol was illegal to possess or consume on the Navajo Nation. Just shy of 80,000 people lived on the reservation in 1960. Between 1958 and 1960, Navajo police arrested just under 25,000 people on alcohol-related charges. 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, which built the largest drunk tank in the U.S. during these years, arrested even more. 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 was miles north of Gallup but just south of the Navajo reservation, perched along a lonely and deadly highway. Each winter people froze to death walking home, or they were hit by drunk drivers along Highway 264, or they were found beaten to death 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 years trying to shut down the Navajo Inn. He worked just as long with other young organizers confronting the commodification of Navajo ceremonies and traditions. Everything about Gallup was designed to produce Navajo misery and suffering and then to profit from it. 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 just how it was. And Lillian, [their mother], accepted it, most everyone accepted that, in a way that Larry never could. Lillian accepted that the drinking was an Indian problem, not a political problem. The violence was an Indian problem, not a problem that had something to do with poverty or with misery. Larry made a commitment to be part of making life better for Navajo people in Gallup. Who does that? 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 the day after police killed him. 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. Some pointed to his work feeding people at the many protests and actions he helped organize. He’d listen to the people talk to him as they ate the fry bread and mutton stew he served. How can you do work like that, some said, and not come to hate the enemies 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. Some, however, found no solace in explanations and no answers in 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. To follow the generations of Casuses introduced in this book is to enter their world, a world made and remade 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. Theirs is a story that links the reservation trading posts on the Navajo Nation, an industry that sentenced generations of Navajos into debt servitude, to the company stores of the copper mine in Santa Rita, where Larry was raised.

The arc of the Casuse family follows the arc of US colonial war and occupation. The important moments of their lives overlay like a map onto the world-historical events of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Larry’s great, great grandfather, Jesus Arviso, the subject of the fourth chapter, is famous and revered among Navajos. He was kidnapped from his Mexican family as a child, traded from the Apache to the Navajo as a boy, raised among the Navajo, to whom he became a legendary leader. Larry’s maternal grandfather, Richard Hutzler fought in two world wars. The Bavarian Royal Army of the German Empire drafted him into the military on the same day it declared war on France in 1914. He fought as a lowly private in the wars that ended empires in Europe and was discharged from the army the day after Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the German Empire collapsed, and the day before the doomed Weimar Republic was declared. Larry’s mother, Lillian, celebrated her third birthday watching Nazis march through the streets of Salzburg, Austria, her hometown. She celebrated her eighth birthday hiding from Allied bombs that nearly destroyed Salzburg. She was almost ten when the Soviets invaded from the north and the Americans from the west, ending the war and beginning the postwar occupation of Austria. Lillian’s personal story is part of the apocalyptical story of war and occupation in midcentury Europe. War and occupation are apocalyptical for all, but more so for girls and women. Allied troops raped tens of thousands of women during the occupation. After the war, thousands more migrated to the US from war-torn Europe as war brides, including Lillian.

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. Louis rejoined the army after the war. He met Lillian in Salzburg, where he patrolled the prisoner-of-war and displaced-persons camps during the US occupation of Austria. After he was discharged, Louis returned to New Mexico and worked in the same mine made possible by the genocidal Mexican war against Apaches of a hundred years earlier. He was one of only two Navajo mineworkers ever to join the radical union made famous in the film Salt of the Earth, which chronicled the strike by the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers against Empire Zinc. No history of that union or that strike tells his story.

So, forget Plymouth Rock and all the other stories of American Exceptionalism that celebrate colonization. Look instead at Santa Rita, New Mexico, where settler colonialism was born in the blood of Apaches murdered by American mercenaries, where it was raised by settlers in copper mines that existed only because of the bloody murder of Apaches, and where it came of age in grim and violent bordertowns such as Gallup, New Mexico, those horrible machines of Native misery, suffering, and resistance.