Peterson Zah, 85, former president of the Navajo Nation and a leader in Native American education on the Navajo reservation and at Arizona State University, has died.
In 1990, Zah became the first person from the Navajo Nation to be elected president of the United States’ biggest tribal reservation. He had been unwell for some time. The Tséhootsoo Medical Center in Fort Defiance, Arizona, is where Zah passed away on Tuesday.
“The Navajo Nation lost one of its legendary leaders last night, Dr. Peterson Zah,” Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said in a statement released jointly by the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President and the Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker. According to historians, “he was a good champion even in Washington, D.C. in the ’90s and ’80s, and he was the first president of the Navajo Nation.”
The late leader spent his formative years at Phoenix Indian School after being born in December 1937 in Low Mountain, a region of the reservation. After completing his associate’s degree, he transferred to Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship to study elementary education. He spent 15 years serving as the university president’s go-to expert on American Indian issues.
Before being president of the Navajo Nation from 1991 to 1995, Zah served as its chairman from 1983 to 1987.
After a legal struggle with Kerr McGee, he established the Permanent Trust Fund for the Navajo Nation in 1985 when he was chairman. After winning their case in court, the tribe is now able to collect taxes from firms who extract minerals from the reservation, which has resulted in higher payments for all coal, pipeline, oil, and gas leases.
Alumnus of Arizona State University, Colorado College, and The College of Santa Fe, he also earned the 2008 Martin Luther King, Jr. Servant Leadership Award. Those that followed Zah say that he was the epitome of leadership despite his lack of prior elected experience.
“Shida’, Mr. Zah, shaped our people to think as a country, and, despite his age and health, he never quit in his goal to see us become who we ought to,” stated Carl Roeseel Slator, a Navajo Nation council representative. To paraphrase, “We are stronger because of his leadership, compassion, wisdom, and ability for lifting the regular discussions of our society into echoes of our future.”