Peterson Zah, Navajo chairman and president, dies at 85

On Tuesday night at Fort Defiance Hospital, the life of former Navajo Nation chairman and president Peterson Zah was tragically cut short.

On December 2, 1937, in Low Mountain, Arizona, to parents Henry and Mae Zah, Zah entered the world.

In 1963, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education from Arizona State University, where he had previously studied at Phoenix Indian School.

From 1981 to 1987, Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Nation Council. He then put his education to use by raising money for the Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation, continuing his work in the field of Navajo and Native American education.

Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah dies at 85 | Fronteras
Source: ABC News

Zah as a president

Zah was elected as the Navajo Nation’s first president in 1990, marking a transition from the Council system to an executive presidency modeled after that of the United States. Zah’s legacy lives on in the hearts of many Navajos to this day.

He’s a charismatic leader who comes around once in a lifetime. “He was prominent, and he was well known across Indian Country,” a close friend of the family told the Navajo Times on Tuesday night. It has been said about Peterson Zah that “every time a new U.S. president is elected, they contact him (Peterson Zah) on Native American matters for his advise, stance, and counsel. For the first time in history, U.S. presidents requested to meet with him, while other elected officials had to call them to set up meetings.

I think of Peterson Zah,” President Buu Nygren of the Navajo Nation remarked. Being one of the first major figures in power, he had the rare opportunity to speak with a current president and chairman. I initially met him when he introduced himself to me as chairman.

The renowned Permanent Trust Fund comes to me whenever I think about Peterson Zah,” Nygren said Tuesday night from the nation’s capital. He placed a high value on learning. Everything dad built his career on, including the ASU construction program from which I graduated and pretty much everything else linked to education, he saw as an investment in the future. And his speech was always graceful; he didn’t have to talk quickly or in Navajo’s more ornate styles; he was just powerful and direct.

After Albert Hale’s death in 1995, Zah stepped down and became a special counselor to ASU’s president on American Indian affairs. On February 2, 2021, Hale died away.

Zah spent his entire life advocating for the education of young people from native communities. During Zah’s leadership, ASU’s retention rate jumped from 43% to 78%, and the number of Native students there increased by 100%.

Zah, a father of three from Window Rock, fell into difficulties with his Stage IV cancer. Tséhootsoo Medical Center in Fort Defiance was where he spent his final days.

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