Peterson Zah, 85, First Navajo Nation President, Dies

Peterson Zah, who led the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal reservation in the United States, for four years in the 1980s and then for another four in the 1990s, and who is widely credited with calming internal unrest and making advancing the economic and environmental interests of his tribe, died March 7 at his home in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of the Navajo Nation. He was 85 years old.

Longtime friend Eric Eberhard said the cause was cancer.

Current Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, in a post on the Tribal Government website, called Mr. Zah “a great tribal advocate across Indian Country and America.”

Carl Slater, a Navajo Nation council delegate, said in the same message that Mr. Zah “shaped our people to think as a nation and, despite his age and health, he never abandoned his mission to see us become what we should be”. .”

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Zah was one of many prominent Navajos who began to question the leadership of Peter MacDonald, the tribe’s chairman, at a time when the chairman was the highest political office in the tribe. Mr. Zah and others complained that the tribal government was not open in its decision-making and had become insensitive to the needs of voters, including reducing unemployment which sometimes reached 80%.

In 1982, he was running against Mr. MacDonald for the presidency. He had little campaign experience – his only previous position had been chairman of the Window Rock school board – but he won, unseating a man who was often described as one of the most powerful Native American leaders in the country.

His win appeared to mark a changing of the guard, with Mr Zah representing a younger generation. “They call him the Navajo Kennedy,” Dale Russakoff wrote in The Washington Post, while Mr. MacDonald, who had been in office since 1970, was “the Navajo Huey Long, Navajo Lyndon Johnson, Navajo Richard Nixon.”

Mr. Zah’s flagship achievement during this tenure has been to create the so-called Permanent Fund, a trust fund that sets aside a percentage of revenue generated by items such as tribal taxes on energy companies, for the benefit of future of the Navajo Nation.

“Revenues from the Permanent Fund provide scholarships, build roads, strengthen Navajo government at all levels, and provide essential services to Navajo elders, youth, veterans and people with disabilities,” Mr. Eberhard, who was executive director of the Navajo Nation of Washington. office during Mr. Zah’s first term, said in a tribute last year.

Mr MacDonald staged a comeback, narrowly defeating Mr Zah in the 1986 election and returning to his old post. Yet by the end of that term, Mr. MacDonald had been suspended and charged with corruption; he then served a prison sentence. After a reorganization of the tribal government structure, Mr. Zah was elected to the new post of president in 1990.

“In unity, we will demonstrate that we have regained our stability,” he said in his inaugural speech, delivered first in the Navajo language and then in English. “We will show that we have found, rebuilt, restored and regained strength and pride.”

During his tenure as president, he advanced talks with the Hopi tribe over a decades-old land dispute; in 2006, when an agreement was signed on some of the points of contention, Mr. Zah was among the guests at the ceremony.

He also helped pass a 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow the use of peyote for religious purposes.

Seeking re-election in 1994, Mr Zah received the most votes in a nine-vote primary, but lost the general election to Albert Hale. However, he remained involved in tribal issues, particularly in education: he served as special assistant to the president of Arizona State University from 1995 to 2006, working to enroll more Native American students and sensitize the university to tribal life.

Peterson Zah was born to Henry and Mae Zah on December 2, 1937, in Low Mountain, a town in the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. After graduating from Phoenix Indian High School in 1958, he earned an associate’s degree from Phoenix College in 1960 and a bachelor’s degree in education from Arizona State a few years later. He spent four years training workers through the Volunteers in Service to America program.

From 1970 to 1981, he served as deputy director and then director of the Navajo Legal Services Office, a job that put him in a position to see and question the impact that mining and other activities were having on tribal lands. He is credited with imposing a tribal tax on energy companies, working to clean up or close old mining sites, and demanding compensation for those who suffered health problems while working in uranium mines. .

“At a very young age, I learned to appreciate the natural beauty of our homeland,” Mr. Zah wrote in an autobiographical sketch in 2021. “It is part of the Navajo aesthetic and our way of life. as an adult, I also learned that our homeland was the source of vast amounts of coal, oil, gas, and uranium, and that those who came here to extract these things often left behind a legacy of waste and destruction. .

His survivors include his wife, Rosalind Zah, and his three children, Eileen, Elaine and Keyonnie.

Another former Navajo Nation president, Ben Shelly, died March 22, an announcement on President Nygren’s website said. He was 75 years old. He did not say where he died or give a cause.

Prior to serving as President from 2011 to 2015, Mr. Shelly served on the Council of the Navajo Nation for 16 years and then served as Vice President from 2007 to 2011.


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