Platt's Last Stand

One Stubborn White Man's Brawl with the Zunis

"I'll appeal it as far as I can go," Platt says, and he's putting his money where his mouth is. So far, he says, he's paid $80,000 to a large Phoenix law firm from which his son Warren is handling the matter.

Platt stops short of threatening violence this June. "If I brought out a gun out there, I'd probably kill myself," he says, a small smile crossing his wrinkled face. "But this has gone too far. I'm going to stop them somehow." NO ONE KNOWS exactly how long the Zunis have been making their pilgrimage. In 1540, the Spanish explorer Francisco Valenz de Coronado is said to have discovered Indians walking on a trail in what's now eastern Arizona.

Coronado made notes of the chance meeting, and ethnologists have concluded it likely marked the first documentation of the Zuni pilgrimage.

Certainly, the pilgrimages to Zuni Heaven have occurred since at least 1880, says Richard Hart, executive director of the Seattle-based Institute of the North American West. That's when the Zunis ran into Dan Dubois, in the only recorded instance of trouble until Earl Platt came along.

Dubois was an Indian trader and scout who once had worked with the famed Kit Carson. In 1879, Dubois married a Navajo woman and settled along the Zuni pilgrimage route. He soon put up a fence, which the Zunis came upon during their pilgrimage the following year.

"Smoke is believed by the Zuni to attract clouds and thus rain, and so they set fire to Dubois' fence," says Hart, who has studied the tribe's culture for more than twenty years and is listed as a witness against Earl Platt.

"Obviously, he didn't like that too well. Later, the Zuni war priests went out there with pistols and threatened him. They explained that rain is for everybody, not just the Zunis, and they told him he wasn't being very smart."

Dubois moved down to Gallup.
"It's a very, very sacred and important pilgrimage to all the Zuni," Hart adds, "not just to the forty or fifty who take the pilgrimage every four years. It's sort of their umbilical cord to the afterworld. It is both a literal and metaphorical pathway along which they communicate with their ancestors. The real and the supernatural blend together to them along this path."

Despite the adversity the tribe of 9,000 has faced--poverty, booze, unemployment--its pilgrimages went smoothly until Earl Platt made a stink. He has been the only one to do so.

"My father and I have always been in favor of the Zuni Indians continuing this practice," says St. Johns pharmacist and landowner Albert Anderson. His grandfather opened a mercantile store in town in 1884--a few years after Platt's ancestors settled here with an original band of 100 Mormon families.

"We have never given the Zunis permission to cross our lands, but the Zunis still come and go as they did in the early days when the first white settlers came to this area."

Alonzo Hustito went on his first of two pilgrimages in the 1920s.
"As far as I can remember, nobody ever interfered with our leaders from going to our religious area," says Hustito, who is 84. "It is our home. After we come to the end of our life here on earth we go there. We must keep on going to ask for strength and guidance. We don't want any trouble now."

EARL PLATT gets up for work before dawn most days. About six, he'll drive a few blocks to Katy's Kozy Kitchen for some coffee and a cigarette or two--this Mormon isn't devout.

Platt often sits alone in the little restaurant, and he says he doesn't care what his neighbors think or say about him. And they do say a lot--behind his back, of course.

Most of the "Earl stories," as one long- time resident calls them, concern the wealthy Platt's fabled stinginess. One woman remembers watching him slowly count out change from a dollar after buying a cup of coffee. Twice.

About eight, Platt usually returns home for a few minutes. His wife, Buena, died a few years ago, and Platt lives by himself in a comfortable but nothing fancy house. His best buddy these days is Pete, a giant Labrador who almost knocks his slight master over every time he greets him.

Platt's doing better physically than many would have figured, after vicious bouts this decade with lung and colon cancer. He's missing half a lung, has had a colostomy, can't weigh more than 120 pounds and has a smoker's hack.

But old man Platt still puts in long hours on the range--seven days a week. "It's just me and the cows out here," he says while unlocking his main gate, about ten miles northeast of town. "It makes me feel better just being out here."

Platt lights yet another cigarette, straightens his Max Headroom ballcap--a gift from some of his grandkids--and gets to work. On this day, he's kind of taking it easy, checking a windmill here, a water well there. He's just shipped a large number of steers to market and he's happy for the breather.

He quit his law practice about six years ago. Some attorneys who know of his work in court say Platt's rough edges cloak one smooth operator.

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