FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Peterson Zah, a monumental leader of the Navajo Nation who guided the tribe through a politically tumultuous era and worked tirelessly to right wrongdoings against Native Americans, has died.
Zah died Tuesday night at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a long illness, her family and tribe announced. He was 85 years old.
Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal reservation in the US, in 1990 after the government was restructured into three branches to avoid concentrating power in the office of president. At the time, the tribe was reeling from a deadly riot incited by Zah’s political rival, former Chairman Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.
Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe and support family and education, speaking to people in a way that conveys mutual respect, his longtime friend Eric Eberhard said. Zah was just as comfortable dressing up to represent the Navajo in Washington, DC, as he was driving his old pickup truck around the reservation and sitting on the ground, listening to the people who were fighting, he said.
“People trusted him, they knew he was honest,” Eberhard said Tuesday.
Zah will be buried Saturday morning in a private service. A community reception will follow outside of Window Rock, Arizona. His family expressed their appreciation for the outpouring of love and support they have received.
“It is heartwarming to hear the many people who share stories about Peterson, who bring comfort to the family,” they said in a statement Wednesday night.
Aspiring politicians within and without the Navajo Nation sought Zah’s advice and endorsement. He rode with Hillary Clinton in the Navajo Nation parade a month before Bill Clinton was elected president. Zah later campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her run for president.
He recorded countless campaign ads over the years in the Navajo language that aired on the radio, mostly siding with the Democrats. But he also befriended Republicans, including the late US Senator from Arizona, John McCain, whom he endorsed in the 2000 presidential election as someone who could work across the aisle.
Zah was born in December 1937 on the remote Low Mountain, a section of the reservation embroiled in a decades-long territorial dispute with the neighboring Hopi tribe that resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopi. He attended boarding school, graduated from Phoenix Indian School and rejected notions that he was unfit for college, Eberhard said.
Zah attended community college, then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education. He then went on to teach carpentry on the reservation and other vocational skills. He later co-founded a federally funded legal advocacy organization serving the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache that still exists today.
Despite never having held significant elective office, Zah served as tribal chairman in 1982, campaigning in a battered white 1950s International van that he fixed up himself, drove for decades, and became a symbol of his understated style, Eberhard said. .
Under Zah’s leadership, the tribe established a now multimillion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers). booking. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, increasing payments to the tribe. A portion of that money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.
Former Hopi President Ivan Sydney, whose term coincided with Zah’s as president, said the two mended the acrimonious relationship between neighboring tribes over the land dispute. They agreed to meet in person, without lawyers, to find ways to help their people. Even after their terms ended, they attended tribal inaugurations and other events together.
Zah would say “let’s get noticed,” Sydney recalled Wednesday after visiting Zah’s family. “We would go together, we would sit together and we would introduce ourselves together.”
Zah was sometimes referred to as Native American Robert Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbiing federal officials to ensure that Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament, said the last year his old friend Charles Wilkinson.
Zah also worked to ensure that Native Americans were reflected 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 was key to maintaining a sense of beauty in life and improving the world for future generations. She struggled to name what she was most proud of after receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff-based environmental group.
“It’s hard for me to prioritize in that order,” he said. “It’s something I’ve enjoyed doing my whole life. People have passion, we are born with that, as well as a purpose in life.”
Zah said he couldn’t have done the job alone and credited the efforts of the team that always included his wife, Rosalind. Throughout his life, he never claimed to be an extraordinary Navajo, just a Navajo with extraordinary experiences.
That resonated with students at Arizona State University, where Zah served as Native American liaison to the school president for 15 years, increasing the number of Native students and the number of Native graduates. Zah also lobbied colleges and universities to accept Navajo students, regardless of whether they graduated on the Arizona, New Mexico, or Utah portion of the reservation, at in-state tuition rates.
“There are thousands and thousands of native students, not just Navajo, who he encouraged to stay in school, pursue advanced degrees, and made himself available to advise them when they hit hard times,” said Eberhard, who worked for Zah while he was president. “He completely disrupted the way Arizona State University works with native students.”
Current Navajo President Buu Nygren said he first interacted with Zah when he was a student at ASU, surprised by Zah’s speech which he described as calm and structured yet powerful and vivid.
“Seeing him on the ASU campus inspired me a lot,” 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, consulting to other Navajo leaders on issues ranging from education, veterans, and housing.
“He was a good, honest man, a man with a heart,” former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said Tuesday night. “And his heart went out to his family, to the people, to the youth, and certainly to our nation. , our culture and our way of life”.
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