Dr. Zah was a revered leader and visionary who dedicated his life to improving the lives of Native American people, particularly in the areas of education and economic development.
Tempe, Ariz. – It is with heavy hearts we share the passing of Dr. Peterson Zah, former President of the Navajo Nation and advocate for Native American rights, on March 7, 2023. Dr. Zah was 85 years old.
Dr. Zah was a revered leader and visionary who dedicated his life to improving the lives of Native American people, particularly in the areas of education and economic development. He was a graduate of Arizona State University (ASU).
In 1963, he earned a bachelor’s degree in education at ASU. Soon after, he returned to his homeland as a vocational educator, teaching Navajo adults the essentials of carpentry, and then as a field coordinator for VISTA Indian Training Center. He co-founded and became executive director of DNA-People’s Legal Services, a nonprofit legal services program for the Navajo, Hopi and Apache people. He assisted tribes in legal matters, set up widespread community education programs, and championed Native rights.
In 1982, Dr. Zah was elected Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council. In 1990, under a new tribal government, Peterson Zah was elected the first president of the Navajo Nation, leading the movement to restructure and modernize their governmental system from a council to a nation. This makes Dr. Zah the last Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council and the first President of the Navajo Nation.
In 1995, Dr. Zah was appointed as ASU’s Special Advisor to the President on American Indian Initiatives to benefit the growing Native American student population and their respective communities. During his tenure, the university’s Native American student population has doubled from 672 to over 1,400. He is recognized for his efforts to increase retention rates from 43 percent to 78 percent, among the highest of any major college or university in the country. His guidance and support have allowed for creating one of the largest and most profound groups of American Indian faculty members in the country totaling 26 professionals.
Current Navajo Nation President Dr. Buu Nygren first interacted with Dr. Zah as a student at ASU, struck by Dr. Zah’s speech, that he described as quiet and structured but powerful and vivid. “To see him on the ASU campus brought a lot of inspiration to myself,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone into construction management if he wasn’t so influential at ASU.” Throughout his life Dr. Zah has made education a priority.
In 2001, he played a key role in the establishment of the “Construction in Indian Country” (CIIC) program at the Del E. Webb School of Construction at ASU.
CIIC was a passion of Dr. Zah’s and he worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development, cultural preservation, and economic growth in Indian Country through innovative and collaborative approaches to construction and design. Under his leadership, the program became a nationally recognized leader in the field of construction in Native American communities and provided students with the skills and knowledge needed to successfully navigate the complex cultural, legal, and regulatory issues associated with construction management in Indian Country.
On November 7, 2019, Dr. Zah was awarded CIIC’s “Lasting Impact Legacy Award” in recognition of his lifetime of achievements. The “Lasting Impact Legacy Award” is given to individuals who have made a significant impact on their communities and have left a lasting legacy of positive change.
“Dr. Zah’s impact on the Construction in Indian Country program at ASU cannot be overstated,” said Kim Kanuho, CIIC Executive Board President. “His commitment to promoting sustainable development and economic growth in Tribal communities has inspired countless students and professionals in the construction industry. We are deeply grateful for his vision, leadership, and dedication to this important work.”
Marcus Denetdale, CIIC Program Manager, said, “Dr. Zah’s legacy will continue to inspire and guide the work of the Construction in Indian Country program at ASU, as well as the countless individuals and organizations he touched throughout his life.” He will be deeply missed.
Watch this video to hear more about the founding of CIIC from Dr. Zah: