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Peterson Zah, former Navajo chairman and the tribe’s first president, dies at 85

By: - March 9, 2023 11:05 am

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

Former Navajo President, Peterson Zah, died Tuesday at his home in Window Rock, Arizona, after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Nation Council from 1981 through 1987, before he was elected the first president for the Navajo Nation in 1990 when the government was restructured into three branches. He attended school at Phoenix Indian School and later attended Arizona State University, where he got his bachelor’s degree in education in 1963.

He 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.

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.

Navajo Nation Buu Nygren praised Zah, telling the Navajo Times newspaper he has fond memories of the former president’s efforts to improve education for the Navajo people.

“He was big on education. He was big on everything that he built his career around was for the future, whether it was the ASU construction program that I graduated from, whether it was everything that was related to education,” Nygren told the paper. “And the way he spoke too was always so elegant — he didn’t have to speak fast, he didn’t have to speak fancy Navajo — he was like really just strong and to the point.”

Zah’s family said in a statement provided to the Arizona Mirror that he died “surrounded by his family and loving wife, Rosalind Zah,”

The family acknowledged the outsized influence that Zah had on the Navajo Nation. “The family understands that the community is mourning alongside them because Peterson Zah was a loved mentor, grandfather, and friend to many. We will pay tribute to this amazing Navajo man in the coming days.”

Details on a community celebration of Zah’s life are being finalized and are expected to be announced in the coming days, the family said.


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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.