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Peterson Zah, revered former leader of the Navajo Nation, has died


A revered former leader of the Navajo Nation has died. Peterson Zah served as the tribe's first president in the early 1990s. He led his people through a time of political turmoil while advocating for Indigenous rights nationally. Member station KNAU's Ryan Heinsius has this remembrance.

RYAN HEINSIUS, BYLINE: Zah once described himself as an ordinary man with extraordinary experiences. He was from a rural part of the vast Navajo Nation but rose to the tribe's chairmanship in the 1980s. Navajo Nation Council speaker Crystalyne Curley says Zah was a stabilizing force during a pivotal time.

CRYSTALYNE CURLEY: He is a founding father of our three-branch system here in the government and, you know, making sure that we're stable within that way for approximately 30 years now, that we're still practicing that same government structure to this day.

HEINSIUS: As leader Zah advocated for Indigenous interests at the federal level, fighting to include tribal nations and environmental laws and spearheading an effort to clean up abandoned uranium mines, Zah was also a strong voice for education funding and fiscal responsibility. Curley says his low-key but stern style gained him trust throughout the 27,000-square-mile reservation.

CURLEY: Many years from now, since the '80s and '90s, that vision of growing as a stronger tribe still stands today because of his vision.

HEINSIUS: Curley knew Zah much of her life, even referring to him as her grandfather, though the two weren't related. Earlier this year, she became the first-ever woman speaker of the Navajo Council and says the elder leader offered constant encouragement throughout her life but especially when she began her political career.

CURLEY: It's a great loss that we're facing today, but he was just a very wonderful man that always thought about home. He never forgot, and he always had that love for his people no matter where he went.

HEINSIUS: Zah was born in 1937 in Low Mountain near the Hopi Reservation, an area at the center of a long-running and at times bitter land dispute between the tribes. But as a leader, he was able to help bridge that divide through an unlikely friendship with then Hopi chairman Ivan Sidney.

IVAN SIDNEY: There's a reason for things to happen the way it does. We can support the political strategies, positions of our tribes. But being friends - it was learning and respect individually who we were.

HEINSIUS: Sidney's bond with Zah was forged while the two attended boarding school together in Phoenix. As fate would have it, their terms as tribal leaders overlapped. Sidney says their close and cordial relationship raised eyebrows at the time but ultimately brought the neighboring tribes closer. He hopes their partnership can inspire younger tribal leaders.

SIDNEY: I was honored to get to know this gentleman and very honest person.

HEINSIUS: Current Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren calls an iconic leader and ordered flags fly at half staff on the reservation for a week in his honor. He was 85. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Heinsius in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR News and National Native News.