Platt's Last Stand

One Stubborn White Man's Brawl with the Zunis

On top of all that was the pending Zuni lawsuit against the United States, alleging the feds had taken lands illegally from the tribe--including the property of one Earl Platt. (Finally, in May 1987, a federal Court of Claims judge ruled the tribe had been wronged. The second part of the suit, which may be heard later this year, will determine how much the feds have to pay the tribe in reparations.)

By the time the 1985 trek came along, Earl Platt decided he had to make a stand. Although a federal judge had legally restrained him from hassling the Zunis, Platt says he never was personally served with the judge's order. So he considered himself unconstrained as he waited for the Indians to enter his property that June morning.

"They was already gone by when I got to the gate at daylight," he says. "I missed them. I guess they went through there at night. They beat me there. I wanted to stop them."

And how did this little man, then in his late seventies, who says he was unarmed, plan to stop them? "I didn't know how exactly," he says.

THIS LOOKS like it's going to the wall. No one expects Earl Platt and the Zunis to settle their differences in court.

The Zunis will have to prove how often they have traveled across Platt's land to Zuni Heaven, and that they have walked a certain trail. Platt has to show that they haven't.

"I am unaware of any case anywhere," Platt's son, Warren, argued in federal court last October, "which would support the proposition that going onto a piece of property once every four years satisfies the `use' requirement. If we were dealing with anybody other than a tribe who had a religious claim that they had to cross this property we wouldn't be here today."

As costly, time-consuming and bitter as it all has been, Earl Platt's foes have some respect for the man.

"You know, he has a lot of admirable traits to counter the other stuff, the Indian-hating stuff," Zuni expert Richard Hart says. "He's one of those guys who will keep riding his horse and rounding up his cattle until one day he can't do it anymore. Then it'll be all over. But we all get the feeling he's going to keep on cooking right to the end."

Zuni governor Lewis wishes he had met with Platt man-to-man before things heated up. "It could have been settled within ourselves," says Lewis. "Mr. Platt has his ways and we have ours. We've never asked him to join ours. There's a lot of people we don't like, but we don't have to hate them. Whatever his beliefs are, I'm pretty sure he wasn't taught to hate."

The governor looks away for a second, then decides to get personal. "I met people in the service who didn't like Indians, but I just went on from there. Hey, I fought for guys like him and his family in World War II. I'm Zuni, but I'm American, too. Something is eating at him and it couldn't be the Zunis. If we had it in for him, he'd be dead by now, him being out there by himself for forty years. I don't know what it is, but something sure spoiled his appetite along the way."

STANDING ATOP a snow-covered hill on the edge of the town of Zuni, Barton Martza reminisces about the 1985 pilgrimage. "We started right here and we went way over there," he says, gesturing at the horizon beyond the deep-red mountain mesas that surround the town. He chuckles. "That's a long way from here."

The 45-year-old Martza says he and his companions, along with a few horses lugging supplies, started at 7 a.m. that first day and marched until almost midnight. They fasted for much of the trip, only occasionally nibbling on something or having a drink of water.

"We didn't have much time for much talking or anything," he recalls. "It's constant marching. I mentally and physically conditioned myself for it ever since they told me that December that I had been selected.

"It was hot out there, and that hard candy I had in my pocket just melted. The elders recommended deer jerky, apples and hard rolls, but you just feel like drinking water. You just got to make up your mind that you're gonna do it."

It was a profound honor to be chosen by tribal priests to make the pilgrimage, Martza says. "We stop and pray along the way at various shrines, at a whole bunch of them. But basically we keep moving along. A lot of the younger guys couldn't keep up with the older guys. But you have to make it. When we stopped to sleep, I just wrapped myself in a horse blanket and, boom, out I went."

Martza won't be part of this June's pilgrimage, and doesn't want to ever go on another. "I hope not," he laughs. "I've done it once and it was great. It's a very spiritual, religious thing to us. I'll never forget a minute of it. But it wasn't no piece of cake."

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