Peterson Zah: Ex-Navajo Nation president honored in funeral procession, reception

Remembered as an inspirational, humble leader with a passion for education and commitment to his people, former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah was honored on March 11 with a funeral procession that stretched for 100 miles (160 kilometers) from western New Mexico into eastern Arizona.

People lined roads on the reservation to say their final farewells to a monumental leader who made education, family, culture and Navajo language the hallmarks of his life. He fought tirelessly to correct wrongdoings against Native Americans.

"He led with compassion and a crystal-clear vision of what is right for the people first," said Robert Joe, Zah’s nephew who served as the master of ceremonies at a public reception Saturday afternoon. "He always put the people before him to do what was right and for the interest of the people."

Crsytalyne Curley, Zah’s granddaughter who is now the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, said Zah "spread hope throughout the whole Navajo Nation."

Zah died late Tuesday in Fort Defiance, Arizona, surrounded by his family and after a lengthy illness. He was 85.

Zah was buried in a private service at his family’s cemetery in Low Mountain, Arizona, where he was born.

The procession passed through several Navajo communities, with people holding their hands to their hearts and displaying signs that declared Zah would be missed. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority hoisted flags from utility trucks along the route.

"All of Indian Country mourns with you today," said Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community. "We mourn the loss of his brilliant mind, his personality, his wisdom. ... We are truly mourning the passing of an era."

Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation — the largest tribal reservation in the U.S. — in 1990 after the government was restructured into three branches to prevent power from being concentrated in the chairman’s office. At the time, the tribe was reeling from a deadly riot incited by Zah’s political rival, former Chairman Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.

Zah, who also served a term as tribal chairman, vowed to rebuild the Navajo Nation. Under his leadership, the tribe established a now multi-billion-dollar permanent fund after winning a court battle that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extracted minerals from the vast reservation.

"President Zah never lost sight of his purpose: to stand up for the dignity and respect of the Navajo people," President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden wrote in a letter to Zah’s family Saturday.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., said in a statement that Zah "transformed the Navajo Nation, and with it, our state."

Sometimes referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy, Zah was known for his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament.

Zah also worked to ensure Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

He was well-known for his low-key but stern style of leadership, driving around in a battered, white 1950s International pickup that was on display outside at the public reception Saturday.

Several speakers said Zah was instrumental in their determination to attend and graduate from Arizona State University or other institutions of higher learning.

"To say Peterson Zah was a champion of education is like saying there are a lot of stars in the sky. It’s an understatement," said Charles Monty Roessel, a former director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education who is now president of Diné College in Arizona.

"He understood the transformational power of education because he saw it in his own life," Roessel said.

Buu Van Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, said Zah had recently met with tribal leaders to emphasize the importance of continuing to prioritize educational opportunities for their children.

"He made sure education was at the forefront of everything he did," Nygren said. "He touched many, many generations of young Navajo leaders like myself."