Peterson Zah, who led the Navajo Nation, the largest tribal reservation in the United States, for four years in the 1980s and then for another four in the ’90s, and who is widely credited with calming internal turmoil and advancing the economic and environmental interests of his tribe, died March 7 at his home in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He was 85.
Eric Eberhard, a longtime friend, said the cause was cancer.
The Navajo Nation’s current president, Buu Nygren, in a post on the tribal government’s website, called Mr. Zah “a huge tribal advocate across Indian Country and America.”
Carl Slater, a Navajo Nation council delegate, said in the same post that Mr. Zah “molded our people to think as a nation, and, despite his age and health, he never quit in his mission to see us become who we ought to.”
In the mid-1970s, Mr. Zah was one of several prominent Navajos who began questioning the leadership of Peter MacDonald, the tribal chair, at a time when chair was the tribe’s highest political office. Mr. Zah and others complained that tribal government was not open in its decision-making and that it had become unresponsive to constituent needs, including reducing unemployment that at times had reached 80%.
By 1982, he was running against MacDonald for the chairpersonship. He had little campaign experience — his only previous office had been president of the Window Rock school board — but he won, unseating a man who was often described as one of the country’s most powerful Native American leaders.
His victory seemed to signal a changing of the guard, with Mr. Zah representing a younger generation. “They call him the Navajo Kennedy,” Dale Russakoff wrote in The Washington Post, whereas MacDonald, who had been in office since 1970, was “the Navajo Huey Long, Navajo Lyndon Johnson, Navajo Richard Nixon.”
Mr. Zah’s signature accomplishment during that term was to establish the so-called Permanent Fund, a trust fund that set aside a percentage of revenue, generated by things like tribal taxes on energy companies, for the future benefit of the Navajo Nation.
“The earnings from the Permanent Fund are providing scholarships, building roads, strengthening Navajo government at all levels and providing essential services to Navajo elders, youth, veterans and those with handicaps,” Eberhard, who was executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Washington office during Mr. Zah’s first term, said in a tribute last year.
MacDonald staged a comeback, narrowly defeating Mr. Zah in the 1986 election and regaining his old office. Yet by the end of that term, MacDonald had been suspended and indicted on corruption charges; he later served prison time. After a reorganization of the tribal governmental structure, Mr. Zah was elected to the new post of president in 1990.
“In unity, we will demonstrate that we have regained our stability,” he said in his inaugural address, delivered first in the Navajo language and then in English. “We will show that we have regained, rebuilt, restored and returned ourselves to strength and pride.”
In his term as president, he advanced talks with the Hopi tribe over a land dispute that stretched back decades; in 2006, when an agreement was signed on some of the points of contention, Mr. Zah was among the guests at the ceremony.
He also helped push through a 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act to allow the use of peyote for religious purposes.
Seeking reelection in 1994, Mr. Zah received the most votes in a nine-way primary but lost the general election to Albert Hale. He remained involved in tribal issues, however, especially education: He served as special assistant to the president of Arizona State University from 1995 to 2006, working to enroll more Native American students there and to heighten the university’s awareness of tribal life.
Peterson Zah was born to Henry and Mae Zah on Dec. 2, 1937, in Low Mountain, a Navajo Nation town in northeast Arizona. After graduating from Phoenix Indian High School in 1958, he earned an associate degree at Phoenix College in 1960 and a bachelor’s degree in education at Arizona State a few years later. He spent four years training workers in the Volunteers in Service to America program.
From 1970 to 1981, he was assistant director and later director of the Navajo legal services office, a job that put him in a position to see and question the impact that mining and other activities were having on tribal land. He is credited with imposing a tribal tax on energy companies, working to clean up or cap old mining sites and pressing for compensation for those who suffered health problems from working in uranium mines.
“At a very early age, I learned to appreciate the natural beauty of our homeland,” Mr. Zah wrote in an autobiographical sketch in 2021. “It is part of the Navajo aesthetic and our way of life. As an adult I also learned that our homeland was the source of vast quantities of coal, oil, gas and uranium, and that those who came here to extract those things often left behind a legacy of waste and destruction.”
His survivors include his wife, Rosalind Zah, and three children: Eileen, Elaine and Keyonnie.
Another former president of the Navajo Nation, Ben Shelly, died March 22, an announcement on Nygren’s website said. He was 75. It did not say where he died or give a cause.
Before serving as president from 2011 to 2015, Shelly had a seat on the Navajo Nation Council for 16 years and was then vice president from 2007 to 2011.