Zach was just as comfortable dressing up in full regalia to represent the Navajo in Washington, D.C. as he drove his old pickup around the reservation.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Peterson Za, a monumental leader of the Navajo Nation who led the tribe through a politically turbulent era and worked tirelessly to right wrongs against Native Americans, has died.
Zach died late Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a long illness, his family and tribe announced. He was 85.
Zach was the first president elected from the Navajo Nation — the largest tribal reservation in the United States — in 1990 after restructuring the government into three branches to prevent power from being concentrated in the office of the chairman. At the time, the tribe was going through deadly riots instigated by Zach’s political rival, former chairman Peter Macdonald, a year earlier.
Zach vowed to rebuild the tribe and support family and education while speaking to people in a way that showed mutual respect, said his longtime friend Eric Eberhardt. He said Zach was just as comfortable dressing up in full regalia to represent the Navajo in Washington, D.C., as he was driving his old pickup around the reservation and sitting on the ground listening to people struggle, he said.
“People trusted him, they knew he was honest,” Eberhard said Tuesday.
Zach will be laid to rest Saturday morning during a private service. A public reception will be held near Window Rock, Arizona. His family expressed their gratitude for the love and support they have received.
“It’s great to hear from so many people sharing stories about Peterson that provide comfort to the family,” the statement said Wednesday night.
Aspiring politicians from within and outside the Navajo Nation sought Zach’s advice and support. He rode with Hillary Clinton in a Navajo parade a month before Bill Clinton was elected president. Zach later campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her presidential campaign.
Over the years, he recorded countless Navajo-language commercials that aired on the radio, mostly on the Democratic side. But he also befriended Republicans, including the late Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, whom he endorsed in the 2000 presidential election as someone who could work across the aisle.
Zach was born in December 1937 in remote Low Mountain, part of a reservation embroiled in a years-long land dispute with the neighboring Hopi tribe that displaced thousands of Navajo and hundreds of Hopi. He attended boarding school after graduating from Phoenix Indian School and dismissed the notion that he wasn’t a good fit for college, Eberhardt said.
Zach attended community college, then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship, where he majored in education. He continued to teach carpentry and other trades on the reservation. He later co-founded a federal human rights organization serving the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache people that still exists today.
Although he never held any major elected office, Zach took over as tribal chairman in 1982, campaigning in a battered white 1950s International pickup truck that he repaired himself, drove for decades, and which became an icon his restrained style, said Eberhard.
In 1985, under Zach’s leadership, the tribe established a multibillion-dollar Permanent Fund after winning a lawsuit against Kerr McGee, who found the tribe had the right to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000-square-mile (69,000-square-kilometer) reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, increasing payments to the tribe. A portion of this money is added to the Permanent Fund each year.
Former Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney, whose tenure as chairman coincided with Zach’s, said the two mended strained relations between the neighboring tribes over a land dispute. They agreed to meet in person, without lawyers, to figure out how to help their people. Even after their terms ended, they attended tribal inaugurations and other events together.
Zach would say, ‘Let’s turn our heads,'” Sydney recalled Wednesday after visiting Zach’s family. “We walked together, sat together and got to know each other.”
Zach has sometimes been called the Native American Robert F. Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to allow Native Americans to use peyote as a religious sacrament, his longtime friend Charles Wilkinson said last year.
Zach also worked to ensure that Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Zach told The Associated Press in January 2022 that respecting people’s differences is the key to preserving a sense of beauty in life and making the world a better place for future generations. After receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff-based environmental group, he struggled to name what he was most proud of.
“It’s hard for me to prioritize in that order,” he said. “It’s something I’ve loved doing all my life. People have a passion, we are born with it, plus a purpose in life.”
Zach said he could not have done the job alone and acknowledged the efforts of the team, which always included his wife, Rosalind. Throughout his life, he never called himself an unusual Navajo, just a Navajo with an unusual experience.
This resonated with students at Arizona State University, where Zach served for 15 years as the school’s president’s Native American representative, increasing the number of Native students and alumni. Zach also pushed colleges and universities to accept Navajo students — whether they graduated from Arizona, New Mexico or part of the Utah reservation — at the cost of in-state tuition.
“These are thousands and thousands of Native students, not just Navajo, that he encouraged to stay in school, pursue degrees, and was willing to provide an advocate when they got into trouble,” said Eberhardt, who worked for Zah when he was chairman. “He completely changed the way Arizona State University works with Native students.”
Current Navajo President Buu Nygren said he first spoke with Zach as a student at ASU and was impressed by Zach’s speech, which he described as quiet and structured, yet powerful and articulate.
“Seeing him on the ASU campus gave me a lot of inspiration,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone into construction management if he hadn’t been so influential at ASU.”
Zach remained active in Navajo politics after he left ASU, as a consultant to other Navajo leaders on topics ranging from education, veterans and housing.
“He was a kind and honest man, a man with a heart,” former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said Tuesday night. “And his heart was with the family, with the people, with the youth and certainly with our people, with our culture and with our way of life.”