Rosalind Zah, wife of former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, is greeted by supporters during a memorial Saturday afternoon at Bee Holdzil Fighting Scouts Event Center in Fort Defiance. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)
FORT DEFIANCE, Arizona – While stories about former Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah centered on the titles and accolades he earned and received during his life, he was always ‘Dad’ to his three children.
“There are many different stories that have been shared today,” Eileen Zah, one of his daughters, said at the memorial service on March 11. “Some of them are about Peterson Zah the leader. Some of the stories are about him as an educator. But we are certain all of these stories capture a special connection each one of you experienced with our dad – face-to-face, one-on-one.”
The esteemed tribal leader was 85 when he died on March 7. He was buried in the family cemetery in Low Mountain, Arizona at a private service held earlier on Saturday.
Dozens of people gathered to honor his life inside the sports arena that usually holds basketball games for Window Rock High School.
His son, Keeyonnie Zah, stood on Eileen Zah’s right side while their sister, Elaine Beyal, stood on the left. Their mother, Rosalind Zah, listened from her seat in the front row.
“Elaine called him, ‘daddy.’ I called him, ‘daddy-o.’ Yonnie called him, ‘dad.’ And he was a great dad,” Eileen Zah said. “He loved us deeply. He loved our mother deeply. Our mom and dad’s love for each other was unwavering.”
As the children became adults, they developed an understanding about what their father’s role meant to the Navajo government.
“That his influence went far beyond our home and the Navajo Nation,” Eileen Zah said. “His transformation leadership touched every corner of Indian Country. People from all over the world called to seek his advice and counsel.”
She described her dad as a carpenter. More than one speaker at the event mentioned that Zah built houses for his family and for his mother.
But this skill went beyond physical structures, he built a loving family, his daughter said.
“He will not be forgotten. We will miss him dearly. He was cheíí to the Navajo Nation. Dad, we love you,” Eileen Zah said at the end of her remarks then she was hugged by her brother.
“Cheíí” is the word for maternal grandfather in the Navajo language.
Photographs of Zah were situated in front of the stage. Dignitaries sat on stage and to their left was an official portrait of Zah from one of his terms as leader of the tribal nation.
Current Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley and Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis each spoke about Zah’s influence on their political careers.
“He touched many, many generations of young Navajo leaders,” Nygren said.
The three leaders are alumni of Arizona State University, where Zah earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963 and received an honorary doctoral degree in 2005.
After completing his presidency in 1995, Zah became the first special advisor on American Indian Initiatives to the ASU president. He served in that capacity until 2011.
Lewis wore in honor of Zah a pair of Nike shoes in the maroon and gold colors of ASU.
Condolences were sent in writing from U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, and actor Robert Redford.
In one of the lighter moments of the service, former Hopi Tribal Chairman Ivan Sidney remarked about the first time Zah ran for Navajo tribal chairman.
After going to Zah’s campaign announcement in Low Mountain, Sidney said his grandmother talked about Zah.
“She said to me, ‘Grandson, your friend is going to be the next chairman because this morning I went out to the cornfield, I saw a flock of crows going overhead, saying Zah! Zah! Even the crows know,’” Sidney said as audience members laughed.
Sidney and Zah, whose terms as tribal leaders overlapped, were supposed to be on opposite sides of issues facing both tribes. Instead, they worked to develop understanding and compromise as leaders.
Their bond remained after leaving their offices.
“Pete, you opened the doors for us to move forward as Native people. You opened the doors for me to continue to work with the Diné people,” Sidney said.
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Noel Lyn Smith, Diné, works in the ICT bureau in Phoenix and a graduate student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She has reported about the Navajo Nation for the Farmington Daily Times and the Navajo Times.