Platt's Last Stand

One Stubborn White Man's Brawl with the Zunis

Earl Platt leans his old body on his battered pickup and points to the mountains beyond his sprawling ranch in eastern Arizona.

It's way out there, he says, where the Zunis say they have to pray. "Those Indians say it's important that they cross my land," Platt starts. "It's important to me that they don't."

He doesn't give a damn that way out there is Zuni Heaven--the holy place that for centuries has compelled tribal men to make a regular pilgrimage, praying to their dead and renewing ties to their eternal home.

A slashing winter wind whips past as the eighty-year-old millionaire stares into the distance through watery blue eyes. "I don't like Indians, period," Platt says in a raspy twang. "They're bad neighbors, and they're bad people because they'll cross ya. And they do cross ya. I'm going to be hard to live with from now on. I'm not in a negotiating mood."

Tribal councilman Barton Martza®MDRV¯ agrees there's nothing to negotiate.
"We have to walk to Zuni Heaven because that's what we've always done," Martza says, "and we have to go there a certain way. It's very important for us to win, whatever it takes. But that old man sure been causing us a lot of grief."

That's what this Wild West feud comes down to: One stubborn white man against a steadfast Indian tribe.

The next four-day, ninety-mile round- trip trek is scheduled for mid-June. Zuni Heaven--two small mountains and a dry lake bed--is fourteen miles north of St. Johns. To get there, a group of about fifty Zunis cross more than a dozen miles of land that Platt owns or leases from the federal and state governments. The tribe's return route doesn't cross Platt's property.

"We don't want trouble, but this guy is a throwback to the old days," says Zuni tribal governor Robert Lewis,®MDRV¯ who at 74 is only a few years younger than octogenarian Platt.

"Before Mr. Platt was ever born or his ancestors were ever here, our people were walking to Koluwala:wa®MDRV¯, our heaven, where we go after we die. It's documented back to the time of Coronado, the 1500s. If we had just initiated this pilgrimage, it might be different."

Lewis says his tribe has known for a long time that Platt didn't care for them or their quadrennial pilgrimage. But, he adds, they weren't prepared for the ugliness before their last journey in June of 1985. Then, everyone from the local sheriff to a federal judge had to get involved.

Apache County Sheriff Art Lee®MDRV¯ feared a powder keg after one of Platt's two attorney sons, Mitchel®MDRV¯, asked him to arrest any Zunis who trespassed. Lee warned the tribe that Earl Platt apparently was determined to stop them.

The sheriff's concern led Jerry Cordova,®MDRV¯ the U.S. Interior Government's superintendent at the Zuni Indian Reservation, to write a federal court judge.

"I am fearful," Cordova wrote, "that any attempt to arrest or interrupt the Zuni elders on their pilgrimage may well result in needless physical violence because of the deep-seated religious belief of the Zunis in the importance of their pilgrimage. Any such confrontation would be extremely hazardous inasmuch as there will be over fifty zealous Zuni Indians to contend with."

Lawyers representing the tribe quickly convinced U.S. District Judge Paul Rosenblatt®MDRV¯ to issue a temporary restraining order to allow the Zunis to cross Platt's land.

Rosenblatt signed the order in Phoenix--about 220 miles away from Platt's property--despite warnings from Mitchel Platt that "there may be irreparable damage to both life and property if the Zunis are not restrained."

The Zunis completed their 1985 pilgrimage without incident, but no one's predicting what will happen this June. Neither side is giving an inch.

"I don't know why this man wants to deny us an opportunity to cross," Governor Lewis laments from his office in Zuni, New Mexico, about an hour from Platt's place.

"After all, it is a place that once belonged to us. We have no church, but we have created shrines, holy places, in various places. The whole outside is a church to us. You see, those mountains are going to stay put, and we're going to keep going there as long as we are a tribe."

In fact, the Zunis long lived on the very land that Platt now claims as his own--land that a federal court has decided was improperly taken from the Indians. The Zunis aren't asking for their old lands back. However, they have sued for a permanent mile-wide easement across Platt's property. Platt has countersued to keep them off his property. Period.

U.S. District Court Judge William Copple®MDRV¯ will determine who has the better case. Pretrial rulings have favored the Zuni, but no one's sure if the case will be heard by the June pilgrimage. If not, the tribe's lawyers say they will ask for a new restraining order against Platt.

If the Zunis win, Earl Platt will have lost a big battle. But don't count him out. A former state senator and Apache County attorney--yes, this crotchety cowboy ®MD120¯ Col 2, Depth P60.10 I10.00 practiced law for nearly half a century--Platt is as resilient as the high desert badlands in which he raises his cattle.

"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.

"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.

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."

Martza was aware in 1985 of Platt, but he wasn't involved then in tribal politics. Now head councilman, he's keenly aware of the feud. "I wish Mr. Platt had a mind that was maybe this much open," he says, letting a sliver of space come between his thumb and forefinger.

But Earl Platt's mind isn't open.
"The Zunis are using their religion, I think, in an unconstitutional way," Platt says. "That's the objection I have. I'm not a religious man, and I don't go very often to church on Sundays. But the government won't even allow you to say a prayer in school, and now it's all right for the Zunis to acquire an easement to walk once every four years to what they say is a holy place? It's ridiculous.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Phoenix Concert Tickets
Loading...