Platt's Last Stand

One Stubborn White Man's Brawl with the Zunis

"I don't know about that," he shrugs. "There's no big deal to being a lawyer. I told my sons when I quit my practice to do this full-time that I was retiring to go to work."

Earl Platt's father was a cattle rancher who owned some of this same land. Platt has been working on it almost as far back as he can remember. In 1924, while still attending St. Johns High School, he homesteaded a square-mile parcel not far from where the Zunis cross on their pilgrimage.

For starters, Platt put some calves on his homestead he had earned by working for his dad. Then he paid a crew of Mexican laborers to build a small adobe home, where he lived during the summers after he went off to college. The little house, now empty, still stands.

After high school, Platt attended Brigham Young University, then transferred to the University of Southern California. After completing his undergraduate work, he applied to USC law school. "I guess I just kind of fell into it," he says. "Guess I surprised a lot of people."

Platt hung his attorney-at-law sign in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. "It wasn't easy making ends meet then, even for a lawyer," he recalls. "I wasn't starving, but I wasn't making a hell of a lot either."

In 1936, Platt moved back to Arizona. Soon after that, he and his two brothers bought miles and miles of land in Apache County. They also obtained grazing leases to thousands of acres from the state and federal governments. The brothers later divvied up the land, but even the division left Platt as one of Arizona's largest landowners.

In the late 1930s, Platt served two terms as Apache County attorney. He was and is a Democrat, though now he usually votes Republican. By the 1940s, he was splitting his time between cattle ranching and lawyering. He continued to do so after he was elected to two terms in the late 1940s as a state senator.

"Those labor unions voted me out of there," Platt says of his 1950 defeat, and leaves it at that.

It also was in the late 1940s, Platt says, that he had his first run-in with the Zunis. "That was the only time I ever really caught them out there," he says. "They asked me if it was all right for them to cross, and I said, yeah, go ahead, but don't make fires, don't tear my fences and make sure you shut the gates. They've done all three."

Platt contends the Zunis have changed their path to Zuni Heaven so it now goes from water hole to water hole on his land. And he maintains the tribe doesn't make its pilgrimage every four years.

"I suspicioned that they have done it more than once or twice," he says, "because of stuff I've seen messed around with out there. But not every four years. They claim they've been walking the same way forever, and that's a damned lie. I put some wells in and that's how they go--wherever there's water and not in a straight line."

Platt cites instances of his fences being cut, and of his cattle gates left open. "It took me six days to get my cows all straightened out one time," he says. "Damn Zunis."

Tribal governor Lewis acknowledges there have been problems.
"We've made a mistake out there once in a while," he says. "We didn't close the gate in 1981 or whenever and his cattle got loose. If he had called us, we would have come over and helped right things, and we would have rebuked the people who did it. We rebuked them anyway and I wrote a letter to Mr. Platt to apologize."

That apology certainly didn't smooth things over. "I've had some very good Navajo friends," Platt says, "but I never had any good relations with the Zunis. The Zunis are particularly good on jewelry, but I hardly haven't seen any Zuni jewelry for several years. I think it's easier for them to get handouts from the government. Plus they're bad drinkers, and I've always felt they'd be drunk when they crossed my land. That's dangerous."

Despite their simmering troubles with Earl Platt, the Zunis say they didn't expect such a brouhaha before their 1985 pilgrimage. But by then, so many things were going in the Zunis' favor that Platt felt pushed to the limit.

IN THE LAST FEW YEARS, the Zunis won major victories in the courts, in Congress and in the state of Arizona.

One big win happened when Arizona returned 1,400 acres of state-owned land at the site of Zuni Heaven to the tribe. The Indians also acquired 3,500 acres in the Zuni Heaven area from the federal Bureau of Land Management, and bought 5,000 acres from private landowners--including a nephew of Earl Platt.

It all came together after Congress enacted a law in 1984 ordering that federal and state lands around Zuni Heaven be held in trust for the tribe. Until then, the Indians had no legal sanction to hold religious ceremonies at Zuni Heaven.

The new law also instructed the feds to ask private landowners to give the Zunis permission to cross on their pilgrimages. All except Earl Platt agreed in writing, some pointing out what "good neighbors" the Zunis had been all these years.

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