The Navajo Nation is in mourning following the death of Peterson Zah, the former chairman and president of the Navajo Nation, who passed away on Tuesday evening at the Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona. Zah, who was 85, had been struggling with cancer for a long time.
Zah was an influential figure in Native American education, both on the Navajo Nation and at Arizona State University (ASU). He served as chairman of the Navajo Nation Council from 1981 until 1987.
He later won the presidency after the Navajo Nation changed its government into a three-branch government in 1990. Zah was inaugurated on January 15, 1991, and served one term.
During his time as president, Zah established the Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund, utilizing tens of millions of dollars won in a lawsuit against Peabody Coal Company. The Permanent Trust Fund was set up to benefit future generations of Navajo people by investing in long-term, stable financial assets.
On Wednesday, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren ordered all flags on the Navajo Nation lowered to half-staff beginning March 9 and ending March 15 in honor of President Zah’s life of accomplishments and service to the Navajo people.
President Nygren said in a statement on Wednesday that Zah was an inspirational leader who will continue to guide the Navajo Nation in the right direction as it moves forward. “When it comes to Peterson Zah, he was a legendary figure who really cared about our children, our children’s future, and the Navajo Nation’s future,” Nygren said.
Born in 1937, Zah was raised in Low Mountain, Arizona, in a remote part of the Navajo Indian Reservation. He was sent to boarding school at the Phoenix Indian School when he was 16 years old. Later, he enrolled at Phoenix Community College and then Arizona State University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in education. He returned to the reservation, where he was a vocational educator, teaching the carpentry trade to adults.
Zah later co-founded and became executive director of DNA-People’s Legal Services, a nonprofit legal services program for the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache people. He assisted tribes in legal matters, set up widespread community education programs, and championed Native rights.
After he left the presidency of the Navajo Nation, Zah was recruited by ASU to recruit and retain Native American students. He served as the Special Adviser to ASU President on American Indian Affairs. While at ASU, the Native American student population doubled from 672 to over 1,400. His strong leadership contributed to the increase of retention rates from 43 percent to 78 percent.
In the fall of 2004, Zah received a lifetime achievement award from the National Indian Education Association. He received an Honorary Doctoral Degree of Humane Letters from Arizona State University in 2005.
“He was a champion of education and having that voice that’s just so… it was not fast, it was not slow but it’s the right pace when he spoke, and it was always very strong and to the point and it touched your heart,” Nygren said.
Among his other accomplishments as a leader of the Navajo Nation, Zah led the effort to close open uranium mine sites, clean-up tailing pond spills, and compensate families of uranium mine workers. He also renegotiated oil, gas, and coal leases, pipeline and electric transmission rights-of-way to increase royalty and tax revenues. Zah also led the national effort to include tribes in the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and Superfund. In 1994, he led a national effort to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom