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The Navajo Nation is mourning the passing of its former chairman and president, Peterson Zah, who died from a long struggle with cancer at the Tséhootsooí Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona on Tuesday evening. Outside of Navajo Nation tribal politics, Zah made a strong mark in Native American education on the Navajo Nation and at Arizona State University (ASU).  He was 85.

Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Nation Council from 1981 until 1987. After the Navajo Nation changed its government into a three-branch government in 1990, Zah won the presidency and was inaugurated on January 15, 1991 and served one term.

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.

During Zah's term, he established the Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund, utilizing tens of millions of dollars won in a lawsuit against Peabody Coal Company. 

President Nygren told Native News Online 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. “My first remembrance of him is meeting him when I was going to ASU and his smile, his demeanor, about that I could actually get a construction management degree, and then from there learning a lot about what he’s done as a chairman, as a president.”

On Wednesday evening Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said in a statement: 

“We are saddened and heartbroken by the passing of a great leader, and most importantly, a loving and compassionate grandfather and father. I will always cherish and honor Mr. Zah’s guidance and support that he provided me throughout my academic and professional journey. His legacy reaches far beyond our rural communities and the Navajo Nation. His leadership, service, and contributions were known across the country.”

Born 1937, he was raised in Low Mountain, Arizona, in a remote part of the Navajo Indian Reservation. Zah was sent to boarding school at the Phoenix Indian School when he was 16 years old. He later 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.
  • Renegotiated oil, gas and coal leases, pipeline and electric transmission rights- of-way to increase royalty and tax revenues.
  • Led the national effort to include tribes in the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act , the Clean Air Act and Superfund.
  • Led a national effort in 1994 to amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 to protect the right of all Native Americans to use peyote as a sacrament.

During the Begaye-Nez administration, Zah served as staff assistant and ambassador for Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

Former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement to Native News Online:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family, relatives, and our Navajo people as we mourn the loss of our leader, Peterson Zah. Under his leadership, our Nation made great progress and improvements within our communities. He established many programs that continue to benefit our people to this day. My wife, Phefelia, and I offer our sincere condolences to his wife, Rosalind, and Mr. Zah’s family.”

With all of his vast contributions to the Navajo Nation and to Native American education, Zah is considered one of the 100 most important Native Americans in the last century. He was the recipient of the 2008 Martin Luther King, Jr. Servant Leadership Award.

Burial arrangements for President Zah were not complete at press time.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].