How the Genocide Rolls

Cover art for the book 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

When Navajo activist Larry Casuse kidnapped Emmet Garcia, mayor of Gallup, New Mexico in March 1973, he certainly knew he could die. And he soon did. After police shot Casuse, they posed grinning over his body, displaying their guns, like big game hunters. This would not have surprised Casuse, well versed, as he was, in white barbarity toward Natives and indifference to their suffering. In fact, he resorted to kidnapping the mayor, because he had exhausted all other remedies to solve a fatal problem for his fellow Diné (Navajos): Besides being mayor, Garcia co-owned a bar, the Navajo Inn, frequented by indigenous people. Drunk, they died in droves of exposure in winter on the long stagger back to the reservation. Or they meandered out onto the road and got smashed up and killed by cars. The bar caused many Native deaths, regularly. But Mayor Garcia wouldn’t close it, despite Larry Casuse’s nonstop efforts to get him to.

In a week when senator Mazie Hirono just urged President Biden to pardon Leonard Peltier, a Native activist wrongfully imprisoned for roughly 50 years, Casuse’s story and beliefs are especially relevant. He was quite clear-eyed about what white colonialism meant for Natives. White men “brought disease, raped our women, killed our brothers the animals, murdered our elders, levelled out the vast forests, polluted our rivers, filled our air with chemicals, called us savage, pagans, Indians,” Casuse testified to the New Mexico senate at a time when, David Correia clarifies in his new book, An Enemy Such as This, Casuse still clung to nonviolence to bring change. But none of it worked. Patient cooperation had no effect at all. What was the Navajo college student to do?

Corrreia’s new book zooms in on Casuse and his ancestors, using this one family as a lens through which to view treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. and Mexican governments over hundreds of years. As everyone knows, that treatment was abysmal.  The two countries sank to the lowest point in that abyss with blood contracts – bounties on indigenous scalps. This started in the southwest in the 1830s. “The military strategy prior to the use of scalp bounties was based on a ration-based pacification strategy,” but “Mexico discovered that it was cheaper to pay Americans to kill Apaches than to maintain Mexican armies to pacify them.”

Scalping Native Americans became big business, drawing murderers from all over the U.S. “Chihuahua established an official state-regulated price on Apache scalps: one hundred pesos for an adult male, fifty pesos for an adult female, and twenty-five pesos for the capture of a child twelve years old or younger.” That’s how the genocide rolled.

The book detours into this gruesome account of chopping off the tops of people’s heads because that was the colonial response to indigenous attacks on the Santa Rita copper mine. And that mine looms like an inescapable curse in the Casuse family story. Indeed, Correia delineates the mine’s history, because Larry Casuse’s father, Louis, worked there and belonged to the very radical miners’ union.

Father and son’s lives were iconic; they illustrated in two different ways indigenous response to the dominion and cruelty of colonial empire. Correia devotes as much space to Louis as to Larry: Louis whose mother died when he was young and who was sent with his older brother to Standing Rock near Chaco Canyon to live with his grandmother. His father remarried and reunited all his children into one capacious family. Louis grew up poor and fought in World War II in Germany. By some miracle, he survived this grisly, bloody struggle in forests where almost all his fellow soldiers perished, and he endured his wretched time as a POW. He married an Austrian child war bride, took her back to the southwest and worked as a miner. They had six children, and life was hard. Much later, after divorce, he worked at another mine, slept in his station-wagon and turned his wages over to his ex, so she could support their kids in Gallup. Larry was the oldest, born in 1953.

The 1950s in the southwest brutalized Native Americans. The violent Indian hatred there, Correia writes, is difficult to overstate. In the ‘50s, “Navajos died from tuberculosis at a rate nearly ten times that of white people; dysentery by thirteen times; invasive gastroenteritis by twenty-five times. Measles took the lives of Navajos at a rate nearly thirty times greater than white people. Where white people expected to live to nearly seventy, Navajos were lucky to live to twenty. Few unions took up their cause.”

Larry Casuse made it his business to document the goal of settler colonialism, which, Correia writes, is genocide. Casuse did this by photographing the patrons of the Navajo Inn, as they stumbled into ditches or onto the road and passed out. Indigenous activists like Larry called the border town of Gallup the “Exploitation Capital of the World.” He did everything he could to shutter the Navajo Inn, and in the end, he was killed for it. Like his heroes at Wounded Knee, Larry Casuse fought back. That led promptly to his violent extinction.

Despite Larry’s grim fate, this book not only eulogizes him, but also it implicitly calls for resistance; though even if legal, resistance, when not outright neglected, leads often to ferocious abuse. Still, there’s no time like the present. Especially now with a white house more favorably inclined to Native concerns than the next one will probably be. Because in two years, the formerly conservative now openly fascist GOP may well have seized power, and you can be sure, if it does, the rights of the indigenous won’t even be on the back burner, or in the kitchen or in the house.

 If Trump or an imitator regains the white house, planned destruction of nature will zip along at 90 miles an hour. This especially impacts Native Americans, whose relationship to the natural world is so much less alienated than that of whites.  Indeed, one environmental group profiled in Truthout May 30 is Native Movement, whose spokeswoman told the interviewer that in Alaska a just transition to a renewables-based society “must be rooted in Indigenous perspectives, because it is Alaska’s Native nations who have lived in harmony with these lands for over 30,000 years, and whose deep connections, encyclopedic knowledge and spiritual interconnectivity will heal the wounds of the past 100 years of colonization and extractive capitalism.”

The GOP most of us are familiar with is not concerned with a just transition, renewables, Native nations’ encyclopedic erudition regarding nature or the Indigenous bond to the land reaching back tens of thousands of years. Republicans are concerned with business and profits. So are Dems, but they at least pay lip service to other values, even if thoroughly hypocritically. The right doesn’t even bother with hypocrisy. As Republicans made clear with their removal of protections for the Bears’ Ears monument in Utah just a few years ago and on countless other occasions, the GOP holds the most repulsive goals of the unfettered capitalism that is destroying the planet and the lives of indigenous people everywhere quite dear to its heart.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.