Zah died late Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a long illness. He was 85.
Flagstaff, AZ • Peterson Zah, a monumental leader of the Navajo Nation who led the tribe through a politically turbulent era and worked tirelessly to right wrongdoings against Native Americans, has died.
Zah died late Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a long illness, the office of Navajo President Buu Nygren said. He was 85.
Zah was the first president elected in 1990 in the Navajo Nation — the United States’ largest tribal reservation — after the government was reorganized into three branches to avoid concentrating power in the chairman’s office. At the time, the tribe had been rocked by a deadly uprising started a year earlier by Zah’s political rival, former Chairman Peter MacDonald.
Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe and support family and education by speaking to people in a way that instilled mutual respect, said longtime friend Eric Eberhard. Zah was as comfortable donning tails to represent the Navajos of Washington, D.C. as he was driving his old pickup truck around the reservation and sitting on the ground listening to the people who were struggling, he said.
“People trusted him, they knew he was honest,” said Eberhard on Tuesday.
Emerging politicians inside and outside the Navajo Nation sought Zah’s advice and support. A month before Bill Clinton was elected President, he rode with Hillary Clinton in the Navajo Nation parade. Zah later championed Hillary Clinton in her run for the presidency.
He recorded countless campaign advertisements in the Navajo language over the years that were aired on the radio, mostly on the Democrat side. But he also befriended Republicans, including the late US Senator John McCain of Arizona, whom he supported in the 2000 presidential election as someone who could work across the aisle.
Zah was born in December 1937 on remote Low Mountain, part of the reservation embroiled in a decades-long land dispute with the neighboring Hopi tribe that resulted in the resettlement of thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopis. He attended boarding school, graduated from the Phoenix Indian School, and dismissed the notion that he wasn’t suitable for college, Eberhard said.
Zah attended community college, then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship, where he earned a degree in education. He went on to teach reservation carpentry and other job skills. He later co-founded a federally funded legal advocacy organization that served Navaho, Hopi, and Apache, which still exists today.
Under Zah’s leadership, the tribe set up a multibillion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that determined the tribe had the authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers) large reserve. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, increasing payments to the tribe. A portion of this money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.
Though Zah never held elected office, he took the post of tribal leader in 1982, campaigning in a white, battered 1950s international pickup truck that he repaired himself, drove for decades, and which became a symbol of his understated style, Eberhard said.
Led by Zah, the tribe established a multibillion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that determined the tribe had the power to tax corporations extracting minerals from the 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers) of territory. Reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, increasing payments to the tribe. A portion of this money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.
Zah was sometimes referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas, and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament, his longtime friend Charles said Wilkinson last year.
Zah also worked to ensure Native Americans were accounted for in federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Zah told The Associated Press in January 2022 that respecting people’s differences is key to maintaining a sense of beauty in life and making the world a better place for future generations. He struggled to name what he is most proud of after receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff environmental group.
“It’s hard for me to prioritize in that order,” he said. “It’s something I’ve loved to do all my life. People have passion, we are born with it, plus a purpose in life.”
Zah said he could not have done the work alone and praised the team effort, which always included his wife, Rosalind. Throughout his life he never claimed to be an exceptional Navajo, just a Navajo with exceptional experiences.
This resonated with students at Arizona State University, where Zah served for 15 years as the Native American liaison to the school’s president, increasing the number of Native American students and Native American graduates. Zah also urged colleges and universities to accept Navajo students — regardless of whether they graduated from Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah — on state tuition.
“It’s thousands and thousands of Native students, not just Navajo, that he’s encouraged to stay in school, pursue advanced degrees, and been available as counselors when they’ve had difficulties,” said Eberhard, who during his tenure worked for Zah. “He completely changed the way Arizona State University works with local students.”
Nygren said he first interacted with Zah as a student at ASU, impressed by Zah’s speech, which he described as calm and structured, yet powerful and lively.
“Seeing him on the ASU campus was very inspiring,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone into construction management if he wasn’t so influential at ASU.”
Zah remained active in Navajo politics after leaving ASU, advising other Navajo leaders on issues such as education, veterans, and housing.
“He was a good and honest man, a man of heart,” former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said late Tuesday. “And his heart was with his family, with the people, with the youth and certainly with our nation, our culture and our way of life.”
https://www.sltrib.com/news/nation-world/2023/03/08/ex-navajo-president-zah-guided-by/ Ex-Navajo President Zah, guided by love of people, family