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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Peterson Zah recognized early on that teamwork was the best way to achieve your goals, and being a leader means collaborating with others, even with those who are more knowledgeable.

The former Navajo Nation Chairman and first President of the Navajo Nation was awarded the Grand Canyon Trust Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday for his decades-long work.

The award “recognizes exceptional individuals who have accomplished significant conservation for the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau,” according to the Grand Canyon Trust.

“Peterson has truly been a giant in this region, and well beyond. We are so honored to recognize Peterson, his achievements, and his profoundly positive impacts on this world,” said Ethan Aumack, Grand Canyon Trust executive director, in a press release.

Zah also served as the Native American liaison to the Arizona State University president, a position he held for 15 years. Concerned about the state of politics on the Navajo Nation, Zah turned his attention to finding ways to help Navajo people return to basic cultural teachings of harmony, peace and respect for themselves and others.

In his acceptance speech, Zah was thankful for growing up in a traditional Navajo family who only spoke Navajo. He said although they didn’t have a lot of education, his mom taught him about his culture and the Navajo clan system. His father was a U.S. Marine and Navajo code talker. The event was held in person and livestreamed at the Twin Arrows Hotel and Casino east of Flagstaff, Arizona.

As a young adolescent, Zah worked as a sugar beet picker in Preston, Idaho; was a Navajo translator for one of the farmers; and a railroad worker

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Under Zah’s leadership, the tribe established a Permanent Fund that’s grown to more than $4 billion. The Navajo Nation won a court battle against Kerr McGee decades ago that found the tribe had authority to tax companies that extract minerals from the reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased payments to the tribe. A portion of that money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.

“Because of the work you did, the Permanent Fund is going to continue to meet the needs of the Navajo people for generations to come,” said Zah's longtime friend, Eric Eberhard, who worked in the tribe’s Department of Justice.

He added Zah’s historic advocacy for the cultural and religious use of peyote.

“In my book, you are an extraordinary Navajo leader who has achieved extraordinary things for the Navajo people and Native people all across the United States,” Eberhard said.

John Echohawk, a trust board of director and executive director for the Native American Rights Fund, recalled Zah’s long time effort to bring environmentalists and tribes to work together. He credited Zah for helping increase Native membership in environmental organizations, particularly on the Grand Canyon Trust.

Zah said the responsibility of Indigenous people is to ask what they can do to help and to genuinely be interested in adding something more to their communities. And he is glad to see others share his passion for protecting and respecting the environment – teachings his grandpa taught him.

“The elderly will do anything and everything to teach you some of those old ways, always,” Zah said. “But you have to ask and learn as much as you can, while you can, so you can use those teachings in the future.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.