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 MartzaMDRV 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:waMDRV, 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 LeeMDRV feared a powder keg after one of Platt's two attorney sons, MitchelMDRV, 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 RosenblattMDRV 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 CoppleMDRV 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.