Former Navajo chairman and president, Peterson Zah, dies at 85

By: - March 9, 2023 4:40 am

Peterson Zah gives a speech at Diné College on April 7, 2017. (Photo courtesy Diné College)

Former Navajo President, Peterson Zah, died Tuesday in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Nation Council in the 1980s before he was elected the first president for the Navajo Nation in 1990 when the government was restructured into three branches.

According to reporting by the Associated Press, Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe, and to support family and education, after he took office. Zah guided his tribe through a politically turbulent era and worked hard to correct wrongdoings against Native Americans.

Memories that start with a pickup truck

In his later years, Zah became the Native American liaison for the president of Arizona State University, a post he held for 15 years where he helped increase the number of Native students enrolled, according to the AP.

Zah was remembered in the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Wednesday where Sen. Shannon Pinto (D-Tohatchi) requested a moment of silence for the fallen leader.

“What Peterson emphasized was the future of the nation, for the children, and always advocated that to new leadership coming in,” said Pinto. “He didn’t serve a very long time in leadership with the Navajo Nation. But it was a very pinnacle for him to be there.”

Pinto also discussed Zah’s tireless efforts towards pushing young Native students towards higher education.

“He doubled the enrollment of Native American students at that university. He even increased their retention rate from 43% to 78%. So it was very certain that our people heard him about education being a priority,” she said.

Rep. Wonda Johnson (D-Rehobeth) remembered how loving Zah was after discovering they were from the same Navajo clans.

“He called me his daughter, acknowledged me as his daughter and from then on we had a relationship,” said Johnson. “And he guided and mentored me.”

Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) admired Zah’s leadership qualities.

“Any tribal leader, when they can speak with eloquence, when they can speak with grace, when they can speak from the heart and utilize their core values in projecting that in terms of where they come from, and how they can talk about any situation, but yet go back and use those core values from where they come from is powerful,” he said.

Lente is thankful that he and future Native leaders have that role model.

“I want to be able to somehow be able to replicate that ability to be able to be an effective leader,” he said. “Yet be humble enough to know that he can come back to his community and he’s still a leader within his own community.”

And as the Associated Press wrote, despite his tremendous success, Zah never claimed to be an extraordinary Navajo, just a Navajo with extraordinary experiences.

UPDATE Sat. March 11, 2023 9:30 a.m.

This story was updated to provide proper attribution to information that was first reported by the Associated Press.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Jeanette DeDios
Jeanette DeDios

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. Jeanette can be contacted at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.