Peterson Zah, a Navajo Nation leader who guided the tribe through a politically tumultuous era and worked tirelessly to correct wrongdoings against Native Americans, has died.
Zah died late on Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a lengthy illness, his family and the tribe announced. He was 85.
In 1990, Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal reservation in the US, after the government was restructured. At the time, the tribe was reeling from a deadly riot incited by Zah’s rival, former chairman Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.
Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe and to support family and education, speaking with people in ways that imparted mutual respect, said his longtime friend Eric Eberhard.
Zah, Eberhard said, was as comfortable representing Navajos in Washington DC as he was driving his old pickup truck round the reservation and sitting on the ground, listening to people who were struggling.
“People trusted him, they knew he was honest,” Eberhard said.
Zah will be buried on Saturday at a private service. A reception will follow just outside Window Rock, Arizona.
“It’s heartwarming to hear from the many people who share stories about Peterson, which provide comfort for the family,” his family said on Wednesday.
Aspiring politicians on and off the Navajo Nation sought Zah’s advice and endorsement. He rode with Hillary Clinton in the Navajo Nation parade a month before Bill Clinton was elected president, and later campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.
He recorded countless campaign ads in the Navajo language, mostly siding with Democrats. But he made friends with Republicans including the late Arizona senator John McCain, whom he endorsed in the 2000 presidential election.
Zah was born in December 1937 in Low Mountain, a section of the reservation embroiled in a decades-long land dispute with the Hopi Tribe that resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopis. He attended boarding school, graduating from the Phoenix Indian School.
Zah attended community college, then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship, earning a degree in education. He taught carpentry and other vocational skills. He co-founded a federally funded legal advocacy organization that serves Navajos, Hopis and Apaches.
Zah captured the tribal chairman’s post in 1982. Under Zah’s leadership, the tribe established a now multi-billion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000 square-mile reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased payments to the tribe. A portion of that money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.
The former Hopi chairman Ivan Sydney, whose tenure overlapped with Zah, said the two mended the relationship between the tribes. They agreed to meet in person, without lawyers, to come up with ways to help their people. Even after their terms ended, they attended tribal inaugurations and other events together.
Zah would say “let’s go turn some heads”, Sydney recalled on Wednesday. “We would go together, sit together and get introduced together.”
Zah sometimes was referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament, his longtime friend Charles Wilkinson said.
Zah also worked to ensure Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Zah told the Associated Press in January 2022 respecting people’s differences was key to maintaining a sense of beauty in life and improving the world. He struggled to name the thing he was most proud of after receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff-based environmental group.
“It’s hard for me to prioritize in that order,” he said. “It’s something I enjoyed doing all my life. People have passion, we’re born with that, plus a purpose in life.”
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