TEMPE, Ariz. - Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation who is
considered one of the 100 most important American Indians in the last
century and a key leader of Native government and education, will receive
an honorary degree from Arizona State University on May 12.
Amid the dignified pageantry of a procession consisting of more than two
dozen tribal leaders from around the country, Zah will be draped with a
handwoven leadership blanket after receiving the honorary doctorate from
ASU President Michael Crow. The ceremony will be part of ASU's spring
Zah was elected the first president of the Navajo Nation in 1990. Earlier
he was chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, leading the movement to
restructure and modernize the tribe's governmental system. Throughout his
career he has made education his first priority.
Zah has worked for 30 years to defend the interests of American Indian
people and is widely respected among the Arizona tribes. Largely because of
his intense focus on education, the Navajo have made great progress toward
achieving their goal of an enhanced and sustainable future.
As adviser to the ASU president on American Indian affairs for 10 years, he
has helped double the university's Native student population from 672 to
1,237 and increase retention from 43 percent to 78 percent - among the
highest of any major college or university in the country. Last fall he
received a lifetime achievement award from the National Indian Education
"Peterson Zah is the living national treasure of the Navajo Nation, a
senior statesman to all Native Americans and one of Arizona's most
prominent citizens," said Crow. "He is also one of ASU's most distinguished
Zah's respect for the value of education is rooted in his own story. Born
in 1937 and raised in the middle of the Navajo Reservation at remote Low
Mountain, Ariz., he had little contact with the outside world in his early
years. But when Navajo soldiers returned after World War II with new ideas
and stories of progress, he resolved to get an education and return to help
He left his home and family in 1953 to attend the Phoenix Indian School,
later enrolling at Phoenix Community College and finally ASU, where he
earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1963. He returned to his
homeland as a vocational educator, teaching Navajo adults the essentials of
the carpentry trade, and then as a field coordinator for VISTA Indian
Quickly proving his leadership abilities, he became executive director of
DNA-People's Legal Services, a nonprofit legal services program for the
Navajo, Hopi and Apache people. He helped them with legal matters, set up
widespread community education programs and championed Native consumer
rights. Zah was elected chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1982.
Tall and silver-haired, Zah now meets with ASU students, presents guest
lectures and represents ASU in meeting with American Indian communities and
federal and state governments. He was chosen as the 2003 - '04 Graduate
Mentor of the Year by the ASU graduate student body.
He also helped create ASU's Native American Achievement Program, a
partnership with tribes that provides scholarships, mentoring and advising
to students. Students are often found in his office, listening to his
soft-spoken words of advice.
In 2002 Zah became the first recipient of the Pierce-Hickerson Award for
outstanding advocacy and promotion of justice for American Indians from the
National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He also has received honorary
doctorates from Colorado College and the College of Santa Fe.