Peterson Zah

Peterson Zah (born 1937) has devoted his life to the service of the Navajo people. He has been active in the field of education, in legal matters, in attempts to reconcile disputes with the Hopi, and in efforts to resolve the issues of depletion of natural resources on the reservation. In 1990, he was elected as the first president of the Navajo Nation. He also received the Humanitarian Award from the City of Albuquerque and an honorary doctorate from Santa Fe College.

Zah was born December 2, 1937, in Low Mountain, Arizona, the disputed joint-use area. Henry and Mae (Multine) Zah raised their son to respect his heritage. Considering his mother his best teacher, Zah often quotes her sayings in his addresses. She speaks no English and is one of the 125,000 who are still fluent in the Navajo language which he, as educator, is attempting to restore on the reservation. A striking illustration of the binding force of the old language came from his assertion that his mother had always told him to use his culture "as a canoe with which to stay afloat." The metaphor, so inappropriate in a desert setting, is over six centuries old and refers to the Athapaskan ancestors who migrated from the North to New Mexico perhaps 1,000 years ago. Zah attended Phoenix Indian School until 1960, then went to Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship; he graduated with a bachelor's degree in education in 1963.

From 1963 to 1964, he worked for the Arizona Vocational Education Department in Phoenix as a journeyman carpenter instructing adults in employable skills. He then participated in the domestic peace corps known as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Zah served as field coordinator of the training center at Arizona State University at Tempe from 1965 to 1967. This assignment enabled him to utilize his considerable gifts of cultural mediation, since his job was to teach cultural sensitivity to those volunteers who would work on Indian reservations. From 1967 to 1981, Zah was executive director of the people's legal services at Window Rock. This nonprofit organization, chartered by the state of Arizona, was called DNA—Dinebeuna Nahiilna Be Agaditiahe or "Lawyers Who Contribute to the Economic Revitalization of the People." During his decade directing DNA, Zah was in charge of more than 100 employees at nine reservation offices, and 33 tribal court advocates, as well as 34 attorneys. He succeeded in having several cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which established Indian sovereignty, and in winning some landmark cases. This grassroots legal aid system offered hope to impoverished Native Americans who would have otherwise had no recourse to the law courts.

Teaches Navajo Language and Culture

Misguided educational policies have hindered the Navajo for decades. Ever since the conquest, in 1868, reservation agents have tried to send children away to Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding schools to speed their assimilation. Competing institutions were the mission schools run by various religious denominations, or public schools in towns neighboring the reservations. By 1946, only one in four Navajo children was enrolled in any of these schools. The Window Rock Public School District compiled the evidence that led to significant changes, more relevant curriculum and parental involvement led to increased enrollment.

Zah was elected in 1972 to the first all-Navajo school board at Window Rock, and assumed its presidency in 1973. In this capacity, he hired more Navajo teachers, installed a Navajo curriculum, developed Navajo textbooks, renewed religious ceremonies, and restored knowledge of tribal history. Zah believed that to preserve the language, it must be taught in all classes, including science and math, before the introduction of English, because it conveys concepts that cannot be translated. The ecological wisdom of the elders who sought to preserve the harmony of the natural world is retained in the earth-derived vocabulary; to live as a good Navajo, for example, one must "speak the language of the earth."

Under the guidelines of Public Law 93-638, school boards made up of local community people set up contract schools; under the control of the Navajo Tribal Council, these institutions flourished. Materials were created in a Navajo spelling system devised by Oliver LaFarge and John Peabody Harrington. Medicine men were invited into classrooms to lecture. Students set up a local television station, and published a Navajo newspaper. One of the Rock Point graduates, Rex Lee Jim, went on to Princeton, and then returned to the reservation to compose a libretto for the first Navajo opera and to try to found a school for the performing arts on the reservation. By the 1990s, there were twice as many applicants for college-level professional training as could be accommodated by the tribal scholarship funds.

Zah also began fundraising in 1987 for a group soliciting scholarships for worthy Navajo students from the private sector. The Navajo Education and Scholarship Foundation enabled many impoverished young people to attend school. In 1989, Zah founded the Native American Consulting Services to obtain congressional assistance for constructing new schools on the reservation. From 1989 to 1990, he was director of the western regional office of the Save the Children Federation.

Becomes Tribal Chair

From 1983 to 1987, Zah served as chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council at Window Rock. This site was selected as a capital by John Collier who began its construction under federal work programs in the 1930s. The council meets in an eight-sided stone building modeled after a traditional hogan. There, the elected delegates govern the largest reservation in the United States—about 24,000 square miles or close to 16 million acres in Arizona, New Mexico, and southeastern Utah. These desiccated and badly-eroded lands house over 200,000 Navajo whose population is increasing at the rate of more than two percent per year. Zah invested his energies in reforming education as one way of coping with the intractable troubles of poverty.

Elected President of the Navajo Nation

From 1990 to 1994, Zah was the first elected president in the history of the Navajo Nation. His childhood friend and classmate, Ivan Sidney, became the tribal leader of the Hopi, with whom Zah tried to work out the difficulties of government-imposed relocation. A film, Broken Rainbow, was made about this Hopi-Navajo land dispute. Underneath this disputed land is coal; and each year, the Peabody Coal Company extracts seven million tons from this area, ruining the landscape and sullying the air. The two longtime friends worked to resolve hostilities generated by their predecessors, Peter MacDonald and Abbot Sekaquptewa, by ordering a suspension of all lawsuits over land in April of 1983, and by pledging cooperation in all areas of mutual concern including negotiations of future contracts with mining companies.

Zah's administration has been grievously tested. Just as plans had been drawn up and sites approved for the construction of six sorely needed hospital facilities, the government announced a 30 percent cut in health services. While Zah was in Washington, D.C., attempting to reverse this measure, an outbreak of hanta virus afflicted his people. Epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control worked frantically to find the causes of the mysterious deaths occurring on the reservation. Also, an extraordinary number of miners who had worked for Kerr-McGee extracting uranium have died of anaplastic cancer of the lungs. The Atomic Energy Commission, who bought the uranium ore, refused to clean up the radioactive tailings which are blown by the winds over the reservation, and seep into the drinking water. Drilling for petroleum and gas by Mobil, Standard Oil, and Exxon has poisoned the ground, desecrated sacred sites, and polluted the air. The stripmining of coal subjects the Navajo to a perpetual fallout of toxic fumes from the power plants. According to Stephen Trimble, Zah has tried to warn his people to think of the future when these nonrenewable energy sources have been depleted: "Someday the coal, oil, and gas are going to be gone. What's going to happen to the Navajo children then? Pete Zah won't be around then … you have to think about the future."

Zah lives at the capital, Window Rock, with his wife, Rosalind (Begay), and his children, Elaine, Eileen, and Keeyonnie.

Further Reading on Peterson Zah

Mattheissen, Peter, "Four Corners," in Indian Country, New York, Penguin, 1984.

"Navajo Education," in Handbook of North American Indians; Southwest, Volume 10, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1983.

Tome, Marshall, "The Navajo Nation Today," in Handbook of North American Indians, Southwest, Volume 10, edited by Alfonso Ortiz, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1983.

Trimble, Stephen, "The Navajo," in The People, Santa Fe, New Mexico, School of American Research Press, 1993; 121-194.

"Proceedings of the First National Conference on Cancer in Native Americans," American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 16:3, 1992.

Trebay, Guy, "Bad Medicine: Illness as Metaphor in Navajoland," Village Voice, August 3, 1993; 39-43.