The night began in remembrance as several members of the liberation organization, The Red Nation, took turns reading aloud a statement about the young Diné (Navajo) freedom fighter Larry Casuse. Their words evoked a time when Gallup thrived on a predatory liquor industry. In 1973, the town counted nearly 40 alcohol vending establishments. As David Correia, associate professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico has noted, a 1956 law limited liquor stores to one per 2,000 people. With 39 open, Gallup had exceeded the limit by a staggering number of 32. As alcohol sales went virtually unchecked, "police made 800 public drunkenness arrests per month," according to The Red Nation's statement, and that "Diné men and women were frequently found dead in ditches from hit-and-runs or exposure."
I listened to this harrowing account of the town's history alongside an audience of Native and non-Native activists and attendees. It's hard to say how many were there that night, but the Red Nation's second annual Native Liberation Conference (Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 of this year) drew a crowd sizable enough to fill Gallup's DownTown Conference Center. According to organizers, hundreds of people attended over its two-day run. The event took place just weeks after anti-Entrada protests on the Santa Fe Plaza ended in eight arrests and a battery of misdemeanor and felony charges.
This year marks The Red Nation's third anniversary. Founded in Albuquerque in 2014, the organization's first rally took place in July of that year on the corner of Wyoming Boulevard and Central Avenue. It was in remembrance of Allison "Cowboy" Gorman and Kee "Rabbit" Thompson, two homeless Diné men who were tortured and killed by three teenagers while sleeping in an empty lot. Hope Alvarado, who's lived on the Mescalero Apache and Comanche reservations, first made contact with The Red Nation's co-founders Melanie K Yazzie and Nick Estes at that event. At the time, Alvarado was unsheltered, a term The Red Nation uses instead of homeless, and a student at UNM. Now a junior in Native American studies and an active participant in the organization's leadership, Alvarado looked back on that meeting as pivotal in her growth as a revolutionary.
Estes and Yazzie were both doctoral students in the American studies department at UNM, where they were conducting research with faculty members on reservation border towns. Yazzie is currently an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of California, Riverside, and Estes is a research fellow at the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University. This activist and academic work, as well as participation with UNM's KIVA Club, was elemental to the group's founding and it has since grown to include Native and non-Native activists, educators, students and community organizers all working on the Indigenous left. The organization's website (therednation.org), moreover, has become a clearinghouse of information dedicated to their various liberation campaigns.
When The Red Nation made front-page news in Santa Fe for its role in organizing this year's anti-Entrada protest, its presence became much more public. But the media discourse about this grassroots organization had the unfortunate effect of collapsing a broad and visionary liberation platform into a single issue defined by a single tactic: protest.
According to its website, The Red Nation "emerged to address the marginalization and invisibility of Native struggles within mainstream social justice organizing, and to confront the targeted destruction and violence towards Native life and land." The Red Nation isn't, in other words, a one-trick pony. Rather, the protests on the Plaza count as part of a multi-pronged approach to liberation that includes academic scholarship, policy work, community organizing, direct action, public education and building a world where colonialism no longer exists. The Red Nation's campaigns have included "Abolish the Racist Seal" (UNM), "No Dead Natives" (Gallup), "Justice 4 Loreal" (Winslow, Arizona) and "Protect Chaco Canyon," as well as participation with NoDAPL and work on the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC). They were also instrumental in creating Indigenous Peoples' Day in Albuquerque.
In the Name of Larry Casuse
On the first night of the Native Liberation Conference, the figure and memory of Larry Casuse hung like a specter. It was a melancholy invocation and call to reflect upon the organization and other Indigenous activists' place within a long lineage of predecessors. It was also an act of bearing witness, of getting woke to the complex circumstances around Casuse's life and death.
On March 1, 1973, Casuse, then president of the University of New Mexico KIVA Club, and Robert Nakaidinae kidnapped the mayor of Gallup, Emmett Garcia, owner of one of the most profitable liquor stores in town, the Navajo Inn. Garcia had profited wildly from selling alcohol while ironically serving as the chairman of a Gallup-based alcohol abuse and rehabilitation project. He had also, in January of that year, been sworn in by Governor Bruce King as a regent at UNM. At the hearing on the University's main campus, Casuse was a fierce opponent of Garcia's nomination where he stated that the "Navajo Inn was were numerous alcoholics were born," because Garcia had "abused" the sale of alcohol. Garcia was, in Casuse's words, a "false person."
Just two months after the nomination was made official, Casuse and Nakaidinae marched Garcia at gunpoint two blocks down the street from City Hall to a local sporting goods store in an act of defiance and desperation. A skirmish ensued and Garcia managed to escape, jumping through the front window, triggering a stream of gunfire that wounded the mayor and forced Nakaidinae to give himself up to the police. Casuse, who had five gunshot wounds to the body and a sixth just under his chin, died on the scene. He was 19.
Against the backdrop of the American Indian Movement's occupation of Wounded Knee, the event was especially inflammatory. The New York Times and other national syndicates reported on the event. Closer to home, the Gallup Independent reported that the coroner had deemed Casuse's death a suicide, a ruling that remains suspect given the state police's use of force that early March morning. Today his death remains hotly contested. The circumstances surrounding Casuse's death could very well point to foul play. In the Independent's accompanying photograph, police officers stood over Casuse's lifeless body. Another person described the image as "incredibly disrespectful" with officers "brandishing rifles" as if the young activist's body was a "trophy kill."
Border Town Violence
Why hold the Native Liberation conference in Gallup? After hearing the story of Casuse, who died only blocks away from where the conference was held, and later attending panels on settler colonial violence in border towns, the choice appeared to be fitting; it was and remains a nexus of interconnected struggles emergent since the founding fathers of the town first set up shop on lands once and still counted as Zuni and Diné. Yet, to most outsiders, Gallup's dark underbelly goes unseen, eclipsed by a hyper-visible tourist market targeting anyone looking for a piece of the "Old West." Undeniably, trading posts are the most visible of these tourist traps.
The history of trading posts speaks less of gawking sightseers seeking out authenticity and more to an era when the US worked to circumscribe Native people and their lands into reservations through such policies as the Dawes Act. Specifically, it was the forced removal of 8,000 Diné from Dinetah, their ancestral homeland, to Fort Sumner in 1864 that helped clear the path for Anglo homesteading in the West. By 1868, however, the reservation at Fort Sumner proved a failure, and the US government allowed the Navajo to return, but only after nearly 3,000 deaths and a financial blow to the US treasury. Following their return, trading posts and mercantile stores acted as the de facto centers on and off reservations where government rations such as sugar, coffee and flour were exchanged for handmade textiles, sheep's wool, and later, sand paintings.
Today, there is an inordinate amount of payday lenders, pawnshops and trading posts in Gallup, all modern-day brokers of this ongoing project of Manifest Destiny and uneven bartering. According to Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, there is $16 million worth of small loans at the area's payday establishments and pawnshops, of "which a super majority are loans to Navajo citizens." It's not uncommon for a pawnshop to mark up a Diné family heirloom, such as a woven basket, by 3,000 percent. And with 50 percent of the Diné people living under the poverty line, the individual Diné seller, as Yazzie pointed out, most likely uses the very small profit for "basic necessities like food and diapers."
Gallup's history of alcohol sales falls squarely within the town's longstanding predatory economy. With a population of about 22,000, little has changed since 1973 when Casuse died; there is one liquor establishment for every 500 people. As a result, alcoholism runs rampant in the town, but instead of approaching it as a human rights crisis, drunkenness is often considered a crime, especially when it comes to Native people; the drunk tank where they are sent is "fetid and disgusting," a place "where non-Indians would never go," according to Barry Klopfer, a lawyer from Gallup who spoke at the Native Liberation Conference. In the words of The Red Nation's No Dead Natives: The Gallup Report, "rather than help those in need, local law enforcement, community service aids and private security all too often antagonize and selectively target, detain and arrest those they perceive as Gallup's criminal element—the poor and unsheltered, the stereotypical 'drunk Indian,' or what they pejoratively call 'transients' and 'inebriates.'"
Gallup thus epitomizes a "border town." Giving it that designation doesn't seem intuitive because of the way our American mental maps work. Typically, when this word comes to mind, we default to speaking of places like Juarez, Tijuana, or Reynosa—towns and cities that reside along the US-Mexico border. This amounts to a kind of hyper-awareness of our southern neighbors and, by the same token, a blindness toward the boundaries of sovereign nations. It's a form of strategic amnesia, a willful forgetting of the US occupation of Indigenous lands. It's also a basic American truism that our mental maps, and even our national ones, rarely delineate where the sovereign lands of Indigenous peoples begin and end. But it's not as if we haven't physically traversed these spaces; if you're a driver going almost anywhere in New Mexico, you will likely cross in and out of Native lands. In this way, thinking of Gallup as a border town requires a shift in our conceptions of national boundaries, and how we—mostly settlers—orient ourselves and others in space.
Jennifer Nez Denetdale, Diné scholar and associate professor of American Studies at UNM, studies border towns. In her writing on the subject, border towns refer to the semi-urban and urban spaces that sit just outside Native reservations. In the Settler Colonial Studies Blog (settlercolonialstudies.org), Denetdale describes: "Because of land dispossession, the processes of capitalism, and ethnic cleansing, Indigenous peoples' defining experiences have included displacement, relocation and migration into urban spaces," including Gallup. Albuquerque, Farmington, and Grants are also exemplary. This displacement is little recognized on its own terms. In the mainstream, it is also far less recognized that border towns are marked by anti-Indigenous brutality. In Denetdale's research and lived experience, border towns are known to be "hyperviolent spaces for Native people."
Violence in border towns shakes out in many different ways: "Indian rolling," or the lynching of Native people by Hispanics and Anglos, as in the murder of the two Diné men in Albuquerque; or in the high rates of police harassment and fatal shootings of Native people, including Loreal Tsingine in Winslow, Arizona, on Easter Sunday in 2016. According to Denetdale, Correia and The Red Nation, police brutality against Indigenous people and Indian rolling are part of a longstanding history of settler violence. In the case of the former, as Correia described it, American "structures of law are always designed to depict state violence as order."
State violence can come in many forms, from the use of lethal force to the daily police persecution of Native peoples who are experiencing homelessness. Yet, as Correia explained via email, mainstream media outlets have little interest in reporting on border town violence or police brutality against Native people. After pitching stories to a number of national outlets, Correia, who counts himself as an ally of The Red Nation, came "up against the most amazing indifference." Correia, along with Yazzie and Denetdale, spoke at the NNHRC's October 2017 investigation of Winslow Police Officer Austin Shipley's fatal shooting of Tsingine. Denetdale is currently the chair of the NNHRC.
Anti-Indigenous policing is writ large in a broader culture of police brutality against poor people and people of color, all deemed "expendable," in Denetdale's estimation. Those who are suffering from alcoholism and mental health crises are also unduly targeted; the latter is especially true in Albuquerque, where the Department of Justice ruled in 2014 that its police department had a pattern of using excessive force on persons with mental illness. It was in part because of police brutality that The Red Nation first formed. The behaviors and policies that are specifically anti-Indigenous fall under what the organization has called "anti-Indian common sense," the taken-for-granted idea that Native people don't belong in urban spaces. In Estes' words, "Native people in [Albuquerque] experience anti-Indian common sense as an everyday thing." For Yazzie, it's also a matter of comportment. "Indians who sell you art and culture for consumption are considered well-behaved and acceptable," she said. "They don't challenge the economic exploitation that makes border towns tick." And when Native people don't comport themselves accordingly, Yazzie says, "'anti-Indian common sense' morphs to 'discipline Native people anew.'"
If border towns operate along the lines of anti-Indian common sense, that probably has something to do with the lack of Indigenous representation in city governance. In Gallup this is especially problematic if you take into account that at least 40 percent of the town's population is Native. "Seventy cents of every Navajo dollar," Denetdale further explained, is spent in Gallup. Essentially, this kind of spending outside of the Navajo Nation for basic needs, right down to water, ends up "flooding [Gallup's] economy with gross receipts," as Klopfer said by phone. Still, "most of the power [in Gallup] is centered around elected officials," all of whom are white or hispanic.
Klopfer believes this has historically meant that there is "no alignment with Indigenous demographics" on political issues. Yazzie framed it in even more poignant terms: "The Navajo Nation is represented at the United Nations, yet Gallup treats us like second class citizens; like we're a nuisance."
Border Town Resistance
To answer the question "why Gallup?" is to think about how structures of colonial dispossession impact the everyday lives of people. In America, this basic truth often gets disavowed—or worse, repressed. Yet, colonial dispossession manifests everywhere to shape a collective reality that is always being made and remade, even as its horrors are repressed by narratives of US patriotism. Colonialism is America's unconscious, raging up in anti-Indian common sense.
The story doesn't end at colonialism. Rather, history is filled with clapbacks, prolonged instances of Native liberation struggles and direct action protests, both of which have impacted the present shape history in equal measure. Therefore, if Gallup is a nexus of interrelated struggles, it is "also a birthplace of Native resistance," in the words of Brandon Benallie, a lead organizer with The Red Nation.
A graduate of MIT and currently a chief information security officer, Benallie was "introduced to Eurocentric philosophies through the underground security culture." Benallie later realized that "Diné philosophies of land and place taught me those same things, complementing or superseding [Eurocentric] ideas." As he continued, Benallie relayed how Gallup was an epicenter of Indigenous liberation. In the 1960s, the National Indian Youth Council was founded there. And after Casuse's death, two protests took place on its streets: The first had 500 people; the second, 1,000. Bringing the Native Liberation Conference to Gallup, after taking place in Albuquerque in 2016, was an act of "reanchoring," of "recentering the struggle for liberation in its rightful place," as Yazzie later explained.
In the spirit of mutual aid and compassion for the marginalized that guides The Red Nation's philosophy of community engagement, the Native Liberation Conference was open and free to the public and directed at those interested in finding out more about The Red Nation, or simply "curious about movements for Indigenous liberation," as the agenda stated. It was here where I first heard the term "border town" in the context of Indigeneity.
The organizers of the two-day event offered hotel accommodations for any unsheltered people and delivered a wide range of panels addressing sexual health on the reservation, the recent opening of the K'é Infoshop in Window Rock, building Native/Chicanx alliances, fracking around Chaco Canyon from the Diné and Pueblo Youth Alliances, and thinking about solidarity between Indigenous sovereign nations and other occupied nations, such as Palestine. Many presenters were working on behalf of their own organization and not necessarily under The Red Nation umbrella. But all, as it became clear, worked under the impression that radical coalition-building across struggles was necessary for Indigenous liberation.
The conference resulted in Gallup establishing its own chapter of The Red Nation, which is proof for Yazzie and others that the Indigenous liberation movement is growing. It also fostered awareness of anti-Indigenous brutality and effective resistance, while building strong bonds of solidarity with Indigenous and non-Indigenous folks struggling for their own liberation from oppression. This is what solidarity looks like. It is, in Estes' words, "about using your body as a vehicle, putting it on the street, or writing a letter … and standing behind other oppressed groups of people."
On the day of the Entrada protests in Santa Fe, Hope Alvarado's voice rang through the streets; her chants not only objected to the Entrada, but also supported DACA and undocumented communities, Trans Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter, No DAPL and Chaco Canyon. The protest was, on the last point, a particularly timely "platform for Chaco," a site held sacred by Diné and Pueblo peoples, and a very calculated way of speaking publicly about the urgency of fracking in Dinetah.
For Alvarado, as well as other members of The Red Nation, "all institutional violence is connected. We don't seek to call our people out. We seek to call them into the struggle for liberation."