The Brief, Brave Life of Larry Casuse

David Correia's new book brings to life the Red Power movement of the early 1970s and the Navajo struggle for self-determination against a society that ruthlessly exploited them.

Danny Katch May 25, 2022

In today’s struggles against oil pipelines and other environmental catastrophes, Native people are at the forefront of humanity’s existential fight against climate change. This leadership hasn’t come out of nowhere but is the product of decades of radical Indigenous struggle dating back to the Red Power era of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Some of this history is well known but far too much is hidden. David Correia, an abolitionist organizer and professor at the University of New Mexico, is helping to uncover some of this legacy with An Enemy Such as This: Larry Casuse and the Fight for Native Liberation in One Family on Two Continents over Three Centuries

Illustration: Lynne Foster.

Correia’s book is in part the story of Larry Casuse, a Navajo student activist killed in 1973 by police in Gallup, New Mexico after he had taken the town mayor hostage in a desperate attempt to close down a deadly bar. But it’s also a multigenerational saga of Larry’s family, a history of New Mexico, an analysis of Native exploitation in “bordertowns” like Gallup and a moving tribute to the spirit of a remarkable young man who has inspired some of today’s leading forces in the movement for winning back Native land and a sustainable human economy. Correia spoke with The Indypendent about the importance of the Larry Casuse story. 

The Indypendent: Larry died trying to close down a bar called the Navajo Inn, which might seem odd for people unfamiliar with bordertowns. Why was this a crucial issue? 

David Correia: This was about more than just a bar. The Navajo Inn became a symbol of everything that was ruthless and anti-Indian about Gallup. 

Larry was really thoughtful about this. It wasn’t about protecting Native people from alcohol, but protecting Native people from the owners of the bars and from the cops. It was illegal to possess or drink alcohol on most Native reservations. There’s a complicated history to that, but what ends up happening is criminalization. The only way to drink was to go into the bordertown, but the only places they were welcome were the Indian bars, where they’d be beaten or robbed. 

So most Native people would drink in alleys, or they would go to places like Navajo Inn, which was a horrifying place. It was in the middle of nowhere along a dark highway. People didn’t want to drive because they would get arrested — the Gallup police arrested more people than anywhere else per capita in the U.S. at the time. So people [walking home] were getting hit by cars, and white teenagers were engaging in “Indian rolling” — violence against inebriated Native men and women — sometimes murdering them. 

“Larry [remains] a contested figure in Gallup. You bring up Larry’s name and the white non-Native establishment in Gallup loses their mind and wants to call him this terrorist.”

More people died in front of the Navajo Inn than any other place in the state of New Mexico. There was never a winter that didn’t end with at least a dozen deaths, finding people in arroyos, frozen. The Navajo Inn was [also] the most profitable liquor store and bar in the entire state. And it was partly owned by the mayor of Gallup, Emmit Garcia, who named himself the director of the alcohol treatment center. Then the governor of New Mexico, Bruce King, nominated him to be a regent at the University of New Mexico, where Larry was a student. 

When Larry was killed by police it was the beginning of an organizing campaign to culminate with the shutting down of Navajo Inn and holding all those people responsible for what they did. But Larry’s activism had become very confrontational — I think it was a moment of desperation for him. After his death, thousands marched in streets for months, because they understood what the Navajo Inn was. Navajo folks understood he was sacrificing himself for them.

You explain how the Navajo Inn was part of a long history of violent exploitation of Natives in New Mexico, going back to the creation of the Santa Rita copper mine where Larry was born and his father worked. Can you talk a bit about Santa Rita’s bloody story? 

What is today the Silver City area in southern New Mexico was [at the time] part of Mexico, but it was really Apache land. The Apache were too powerful, and their alliance with Navajo made it impossible for a durable Mexican claim to the area around the Santa Rita mine. So there were “scalp contracts” to entice soldiers of fortune, mostly Americans, into Mexico to make that war against the Apaches more efficient and affordable. 

“After his death, thousands marched in the streets for months… Navajo folks understood he was sacrificing himself for them.”

And this is part of Larry’s origin story. He was born in a place that only exists because of the genocidal campaign of the scalp contracts. But it’s also his dad’s real moral center. Only one other Navajo man joined the [miners’] union. Louis Casuse was willing to organize with people who quite honestly didn’t care all that much about his interests. 

Larry’s father was a Navajo who escaped from boarding school as a youth, survived some of the deadliest battles of World War II and faced discrimination at the mine. His mother was an Austrian girl who survived Allied bombings and occupation before becoming a white American in a bordertown. How was Larry impacted by these swirling dynamics of imperialism, settler colonialism and racism? 

War and occupation had really destroyed both of his parents’ lives. His dad was a uranium miner and died of cancer. His mom was literally traded by her family [to marry Larry’s GI father] for their safety and probably hers. The world historical events that upended his parents’ lives upended his. Larry had to be the parent [to his siblings], because his dad had to work so much and his mom was basically a teenager. 

Everyone I’ve ever talked to who knew Larry said he was remarkably intelligent, a deeply thoughtful young man. He was trying to make sense of it all for himself and his brothers and sisters. He always felt suspended between worlds. His dad used to take him to ceremonies in the Navajo Nation, but [Larry] didn’t speak the language, and his mom aggressively denied their Native identities. But he didn’t turn away from his mom’s history: From a very young age he was learning German and interested in German history. 

His thoughtfulness and the responsibility he felt for his family led him to take a very principled position: “We can’t keep being tossed around by historical events.” He refused to live in a world defined by colonial violence. He named it, and said “I’m fighting against it for the rest of my life.” 

What is Larry Casuse’s legacy almost 50 years after his death? 

Larry [remains] a contested figure in Gallup. You bring up Larry’s name and the white non-Native establishment in Gallup loses their mind and wants to call him this terrorist. But he’s become a sort of folk hero among Navajos, particularly if they’re over 50. 

Melanie Yazzie wrote the forward [to the book]. Melanie is one of the founders of the Red Nation [a Native liberation organization] and their offices are called the Larry Casuse Freedom Center. Larry is more than a symbol, he’s an ancestor that they draw on to remind them of why they fight for what they fight for. 

His family’s history overlays like a map on world historic events. You can’t make heads or tails of the decisions Larry made as a 19-year-old to give up his life for this cause, if you don’t understand the history of colonialism. I was trying to capture the reader’s imagination with what a remarkable family and worthwhile history this is, and maybe along the way we might learn something about how this country has really been organized.

An Enemy Such as This: Larry Casuse and the Fight for Native Liberation in One Family on Two Continents over Three Centuries
By David Correia; Foreward by Melanie K. Yazzie
Haymarket Books, 2022; 240 pages

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