Fifty years ago an activist took a radical step to highlight mistreatment of Native Americans
Fifty years ago Diné activist Larry Casuse kidnapped the mayor of Gallup to bring attention to the violence and racism that Native people were facing in the border towns outside the Navajo Nation. After holding the mayor for several hours, the standoff ended with Casuse’s death.
In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting prominent Native American individuals in New Mexico who made an impact. KUNM spoke with University of New Mexico Professor Jennifer Nez Denetdale (Diné), chair of American Studies, about Casuse.
JENNIFER NEZ DENETDALE: He was a young man who was very conscious about Native peoples and Native peoples’ rights and the conditions of Native peoples’ lives in the 1970s. Larry was a student at the University of New Mexico. He was also the president of the Native student organization the Kiva Club. His mother was Austrian. And his father was Diné from Mexican Springs.
KUNM: So tell me a little about the town of Gallup what was the social and political climate during that time?
I was familiar with Gallup as a Diné person who came off the Navajo Nation and I don't think conditions have changed very much. In the 1980s, Gallup was known as Drunk Town, USA, because of the number of liquor establishments, which was way too many for a town of its size. And so the liquor industry was set up specifically to profit off of Native, mostly Navajo, people who came into border towns like Gallup and consumed alcohol. And to this day, Gallup continues to not deal very well with its problems with the alcohol industry.
KUNM: How did Larry Casuse play a role in that? What was he fighting for? What was he trying to change?
DENETDALE: Larry was very concerned and angry about the conditions of life for Native people in Gallup. Many of the merchants profited off of Navajo misery with its dependence on liquor sales. And when one of its residents, Emmet Garcia, who was the mayor of Gallup at that time was appointed to the Board of Regents for the University of New Mexico, Larry Casuse did actions intended to get the board of regents to reconsider their appointment and when he had exhausted all means of refusing Emmet Garcia's appointment, he and another Navajo man, Robert Nakaidinae, decided to kidnap the mayor, largely as a symbol to indicate that this was just completely wrong, it was criminal. It was completely unethical, and immoral to appoint Emmett Garcia, who was one of the co-owners of the worst Indian bar in Gallup, Navajo Inn, which was an establishment that just sat right outside of the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.
KUNM: Can you tell me more about this Navajo Inn? Was there any sort of hostility or treatment towards Native Americans?
DENETDALE: I think that hostility towards Native Americans is just a condition of life. It's part of the systemic racism and inequalities that we face. Native people, primarily Navajo people often drank themselves to death as a result of Navajo Inn, they froze to death in the winter. They were found in the washes. There was accidents, because they had walked onto the street while they were inebriated.
KUNM: Some would say that this event that Larry Casuse did was a dramatic action. But do you think it needed to happen in order to gain attention?
DENETDALE: I think it was something that Larry thought that was something that he needed to do to draw attention to the absolutely deplorable and killing conditions of Navajo people in a place like Gallup.
If you read David Correia’s book on Larry Casuse he said that, you know, the timing was off, because their intention had been to kidnap the mayor and take them to another location to bring public attention to their grievances. Unfortunately, it was 4 p.m. when the traffic was just really bad, people were getting off work. And so they led Emmet Garcia to downtown, to a sporting goods store in Gallup. And the result was that Larry was killed.
His death sparked outrage. The Gallup Independent, the local newspaper, printed a picture of Larry's body in a body bag with the police standing over him. Like they had just bagged a deer. It was just obscene and grotesque. And I think that Navajo people when they remember Larry, it's not so much his death or how he died, but what he stood for, and his outrage and his care for his people. His love for his people I think is what draws Native and Navajo people to his story.
One of the things that we need to remember and remind ourselves is that Indigenous people come from a tradition of resistance. And that resistance continues, because we continue to tell the stories of Larry and remember him.
Support for this coverage comes from the Thornburg Foundation and KUNM listeners.