Native American Politics, Navajo/Dine

The Life and Death of Larry Casuse, 40 Years Later

By DAVID CORREIA

On March 1, 1973 a 19-year old University of New Mexico student named Larry Casuse kidnapped the Mayor of Gallup. At 4:10 pm Larry, a political science major and president of UNM’s Kiva Club, a Native American student group at UNM, burst into the office of Mayor Emmett Garcia and hauled him into the streets of Gallup at gunpoint. Larry was armed with a pistol and another man with him, Robert Nakaidinae, was armed with dynamite.

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. For years Edmund Kahn of the Navajo Office of the General Counsel had been sending newspaper clippings to various New Mexico governors of stories of bodies found outside the Navajo Inn. An April 1969 clipping described a murder victim found in the ditch along the road near the Navajo Inn. Kahn scrawled on the article, “When is something going to be done about the Navajo Inn?”

At the time of the kidnapping, Gallup had 39 liquor stores, 32 more than allowed under a 1956 law limiting liquor establishments to one per 2,000 people. Gallup police made, on average, 800 public drunkenness arrests each month, most of them from outside liquor stores and local bars. A brief review of the local newspaper, The Gallup Independent, reveals report after report in the late 1960s and early 1970s of Navajo men and women found dead in ditches alongside the road near the Navajo Inn or behind the store. The most common deaths reported were pedestrians struck by automobiles or by hypothermia. Racial and sexual violence against Navajos characterized both the Inn and Gallup itself.

Even as a high school student at Gallup High, Larry had lobbied the city government to do something about violence against Navajos in Gallup and the problem of liquor sales. Nothing was done. Garcia owned the Navajo Inn outright but before running for mayor he sold a share in the establishment. After becoming mayor he chaired a commission working to bring an alcohol treatment center to Gallup. Apparently he saw no contradiction in his ownership of the Inn and his role in the alcohol treatment center. In early 1973 Governor Bruce King nominated Garcia to the UNM board of regents. It was too much for Larry. He aggressively opposed the nomination, testifying in Santa Fe at the hearing that Garcia was “a false person who is symbolic of America’s irrational attitude toward Mother earth and Humanity.” He said then of himself: “My reason for being on this earth is to tell mankind that we must now undermine all false persons who are destroying Mother Earth.”

But Garcia was quickly confirmed.

When Larry showed up at the mayor’s office on March 1 he found Garcia in a meeting with city alcoholism coordinator Pete Derizotis. Police Chief Manuel Gonzalez, alerted of the incident, entered the mayor’s office to find Garcia with his hands behind his back and Larry standing behind him with a loaded gun to his head. Robert quickly disarmed Gonzalez including taking his cartridge belt. After the two left with their hostage, Gonzalez alerted city police cruisers. One slowly followed behind them as Larry and Robert walked the mayor down the middle of Second Street turning onto 66th Avenue toward Stearn’s Sporting Goods store. Robert kicked in the door of the closed store and Larry led Garcia to the back.  Meanwhile officers who, according to eye-witnesses, included state police sharpshooters, took positions in the front of the building and on rooftops across the street.

According to Garcia’s statement to police after the standoff, Larry briefly left him with Robert. When Robert momentarily put down his weapon, Garcia kicked him and dashed for the front door. Moments later, according to police reports, Garcia came hurtling through the front window, glass flying, hands cuffed behind his back. He was shot in the back by surprised police as he leaped. With Garcia out of the store, police unloaded a barrage of gunfire into the store. By then a large crowd had gathered and they dove for cover during the firefight. Eyewitnesses recall shooting and shouting and then tear gas and then more shooting. As quickly as it started it stopped. Robert walked out of the building, hands in the air, pleading for someone to help Larry. Gonzalez was first in the building. He reported seeing Casuse lying face down, covered in blood. It would be Gonzalez who would later declare finding Casuse dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A witness to the autopsy, however, reported three additional fatal gunshot wounds to Larry’s body.

In the wake of Larry’s death, outraged letters to the editor barraged the mayor-friendly Gallup Independent. A Window Rock women wrote: “after last Thursday’s tragedy, my heart flows with unwinding hatred and pity on those who do not hear our undying cries of injustice to our Indian brothers.”

A Gallup resident wrote: “I would like to think that his sense of human dignity was violated so much by the sights at the Navajo Inn that he was moved to do something about it.  If we can be proud of a city leader who cares no more for the lives of Indians than to make a few bucks off their misery, then our set of values have been reversed.”

Another agreed with Larry that “Mayor Garcia…has a conflict of interest in running Navajo Inn while pushing for an expensive alcohol rehabilitation center in Gallup. Last Friday afternoon we drove past Navajo Inn and there was standing room only against the front outside wall. Two hundred yards west, an elder man was lying on the open, damp ground in all appearances dead but accepted in that immediate environment as stone drunk. How can anyone interested in serving his fellow men and bettering mankind’s lot serve up the substance that helps ruin many lives?”

On the day of Larry’s death, Larry Emerson a member of the Kiva Club, read from a prepared statement. Casuse died “for the sake of the animals, the tress, our mother earth and our father, the universe.” The Kiva Club, he said, demanded a congressional investigation into both Larry’s death and the condition of Indians in Gallup and elsewhere. “We must undermine all things that represent the forces that are attempting to conquer nature and humanity.”

On Saturday, March 3rd, 500 people marched from the Indian Community Center to the mortuary, where Larry’s body was laid out. With all bars in the city ordered closed, marchers demanded the removal of Garcia from the UNM board of regents and the Gallup Interagency Alcoholism Coordination Committee.

Ben Hanley, along with John Redhouse, Phil Loretto, Mitch Fowler, and Victor Cutnose, sent a telegram to the US Attorney General demanding an investigation. One hundred Gallup High School students walked out of class on Monday, the day of Larry’s funeral, which, according to some reports, 3,000 people attended.

On March 20, students and friends of Larry demanded the resignation of Police Chief Gonzalez for what they called “racist police attitudes and actions as evidenced by numerous complaints concerning police brutality and general harassment.”

On the same day, Indians Against Exploitation, a group of young activists who had long worked on social justice struggles in Gallup, announced a peaceful march through the streets of Gallup at the end of the month in order to “demonstrate the feelings of Indian people and to lend support to demands presented by various Indian groups.” Gallup, they wrote “is beyond redemption.” Over 1,000 marchers were expected.

The Kiva Club invited Marlon Brando to the march. Just three weeks after Larry’s death, Brando had refused the Oscar he had been awarded for his role in the movie The Godfather. He boycotted the award ceremony and instead sent in his place Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather. When his award was announced she took the stage in his place and read a prepared statement. “We lied to them. We cheated them out of their lands. We starved them into signing fraudulent agreements that we called treaties which we never kept.”

A telegram from the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee, signed by Dennis Banks, Russell Means, Carter Camps, and Clyde Bettencourt read: “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.”

The Kiva Club demanded an end to all “military action against the Indians at Wounded Knee” and reiterated demands for Garcia’s resignation.

UNM’s Kiva Club marked the 40th anniversary of Larry’s death with a memorial in his honor less than two weeks ago, Sunday March 3, on the campus of the University of New Mexico. Three of Larry’s younger siblings along with their families joined more than fifty others in the Student Union Building Ballroom to remember him. His sister Erika opened the memorial with a moment of silence and a prayer. “We are one in this world together,” she told the gathering. “If Larry were standing right here today he’d be doing the same thing because he had such a dream for the American Indian people.”

After Erika’s opening comments, former Kiva Club member and current UNM graduate student Colleen Gorman gave a brief summary of the history of the Kiva Club. She concluded by reminding those in attendance that Larry’s struggle must continue. After all “we survived Columbus,” she reminded the gathering.

Lenny Foster, who met Larry when Foster was organizing with AIM in Denver, praised Larry for his courage and commitment to social struggle. “Larry used to ask people ‘What’s your commitment? What are you going to do? You can’t just talk about it.” He concluded by saying Larry’s work was “unfinished business today.”

Erika returned to the podium and read a prepared statement. In it she offered a portrait of a young Larry Casuse. He was quiet and kind, she said, always reading a book and forever responsible for the well-being of his younger brothers and sisters. He was always getting involved and “endlessly studying American Indian history.” A nephew of Larry’s who was born after his death told the crowed that he loved the stories his family told of Larry, particularly one about how Larry used to lay on his back in bed and play chess upside down with a magnetic chessboard.

Ursula Casuse-Carillo then spoke briefly while two of Larry’s nephews played guitar in the background. She told the assembled crowd that “the unjust part of his death makes it harder. What we had to go through living in Gallup, made it harder. They took out their anger at Larry and on me a lot.”

In the immediate aftermath of Larry’s death, Gallup police officers had dragged Larry’s body out of the store and onto the sidewalk. He lay there in his own blood while police officers milled about. In an article weeks later in The New Yorker, author Calvin Trillin wrote of the scene that “Larry’s body lay uncovered on the sidewalk in front of Stearn’s Sporting Goods store for a while—long enough for the local paper to take a picture of it with three police standing over it like hunters who had just bagged their seasonal deer.”

Ursula wrote in her poem of their “evil footprints of [his] precious blood.” She told me later that the police framed the photo and hung it at the Fraternal Order of Police. She eventually forced them to take it down.

The family of Larry Casuse stands while the NACA drum group performs its honor song for Larry. Photo by David Correia

The family of Larry Casuse stands while the NACA drum group performs its honor song for Larry. Photo by David Correia

The memorial was interspersed with music including two guitar players (Larry’s nephews) and a flutist. A drum group from the Albuquerque charter school, the Native American Community Academy, played throughout the day including a special performance of an honor song for Larry.

Kiva Club members said that they were working on creating an archive of documents that chronicled Larry’s and the Kiva Club’s remarkable activism in the early 1970s. The event ended after 6 PM after a short open mic and a closing prayer.

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About lajicarita

La Jicarita is a community journal that advocates for land based communities and sustainable use of public land resources in northern New Mexico. http://www.lajicaritanews.org

Discussion

3 thoughts on “The Life and Death of Larry Casuse, 40 Years Later

  1. It would be nice to give a little more recognition to Robert Nakaidinae for Larry did not do this alone. Without the help and support from Robert, who knows what may have happened that day on March 1st 1973.

    Posted by Joe Arquero | October 31, 2013, 1:27 pm
  2. I find that this article is very slanted, I understood that the mayor was shot in the back while escaping by Robert Nakadine, or Larry Casuse. They did have shotguns and all the shells in Gallup. The man (Larry) did kidnap the mayor at gunpoint, took the police chief’s service revolver at gunpoint, was using drugs, was in a sporting goods store with mounds of ammo and guns. The mass media there that day was doing their best to vilify the local police. While I am sympathetic to the alcoholism issues of the Native American people, this seems the absolute wrong way to go about achieving any positive change. What should they have expected the police to do? I do vividly remember the national media reporting the mayor was released “unharmed”.

    I was a child when this happened in my hometown, I knew the police chief, and this “noble” action of a kidnapper is a very distorted view, given credence only through the lens of violence based social activism. This is hardly a whole or truthful story. I also remember that the Casuse family had addiction issues, I remember sadly they had another child who also died abusing drugs, something like inhalants or such. I think that remembering him as a hero is only accomplished by putting on those rose colored glasses, and blinders.

    Posted by S Woodard | May 5, 2014, 10:12 am
    • S Woodward,
      Nearly everything you’ve written above is wrong. The Mayor was wounded by gunfire, but it was police gunfire, not from Larry or Robert. I’ve interviewed people who were with Larry on that day and he never used drugs. I have seen the ME report and there was not reported drug use. I’m profoundly troubled by shameful ad hominem attack on Larry’s family and their multiple tragedies. You may defend Mayor Garcia if you must, but be sure to include the fact that he owned the notorious Navajo Inn–a bar/liquor store that profited off the misery of Navajo men and women. And to make sure he profited all around, he directed the alcohol treatment center.
      David

      Posted by lajicarita | May 5, 2014, 10:45 am

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