Peterson Zah: An 'ordinary man with extraordinary experiences'

When Peterson Zah was a child on the Navajo Reservation in the early 1940s, his father and uncles all had to leave to serve in the military. Zah and the other young boys and the women in his family were left to fend for themselves. And at one point, that meant slaughtering their beloved pony to stave off starvation.

At that time in his life, Peterson Zah probably never dreamed, in his wildest imagination, that he would go on to be elected president of the Navajo Nation, hold many other roles in tribal government, lead an effort to bring more Navajo young people to college, and receive an honorary doctoral degree from his alma mater, Arizona State University.

Zah’s life of accomplishment is the subject of a new book just published by the University of Arizona Press, “We Will Secure Our Future: Empowering the Navajo Nation.”

The format of the book is unusual for a biography: It’s more like an extended conversation between Zah and Peter Iverson, a Regents’ Professor of History Emeritus at ASU.

It is, in fact, a long conversation. “We met in the Labriola Center at ASU to talk for a few hours every three months or so,” Iverson said. “As a Regents’ Professor, I had little money to use for transcribing the conversations.”

The conversations ranged from Zah’s childhood and schooling to Navajo leaders and politics, trading posts, and the future of the Navajo Nation.

Once the recordings were transcribed, Iverson edited them, with the twin goals of capturing Zah’s voice and editing for structure and overall flow “without having the text become stilted.

“The overall process took several years,” Iverson said. “I really don't know of a book quite like it.”

In the book, Zah looks back at his own struggle for education. “My father had about an eighth-grade education, and he was one of these individuals that sought education; he wanted to learn the white man’s language, white man’s culture, and the way the non-Indian people do business.

“My mother, on the other hand, never went to school. To this day she doesn’t know how to speak English.” (Zah’s mother, Mae Multine Zah, whom he describes as “an extraordinary teacher, weaver and carrier of tradition, died in May 2010, after the conversations were completed.)

When he was around eight years old, some of Zah’s relatives thought he should study to be a medicine man. But he wanted an education – “to learn how to speak the white man’s language, and to learn more about the way they do things.

His future course was set when several of his first cousins decided they wanted to go to the Tuba City Boarding School, and they told Zah he should come with them – even though the only clothes he had were the ones he was wearing.

Zah’s determination to learn later took him to Phoenix Indian School, then to Phoenix College, and finally, to ASU. At Phoenix Indian School he was initially put into the Special Navajo Program, a five-year vocational program that did not lead to a high school diploma. But Zah worked hard and was able to transfer to the school’s regular high school as a ninth-grader.

He also had to work around the teachers who told him he’d never make it in college. One teacher told him, “You’re a carpenter and good laborer. And that’s as far as you probably will go. ... Don’t agonize about the idea of improving your stature by thinking that you’re going to make it in college. So don’t bother me.”

“When I graduated from ASU, I decided to have a small party,” Zah recalled. “I invited my former teachers at the Phoenix Indian School who had refused to recommend me for college. I sent out all the invitations, but I didn’t hear from any one of them.”

Over the years, Zah developed his philosophy for success: “Don’t call it a problem, call it a challenge. Let’s see what we can do about it.”

Coming “home” to ASU to first work with first President Lattie Coor and then President Michael Crow was enormously satisfying to Zah, Iverson said.

When Zah graduated from ASU in 1963, there were only about a dozen Native American students, including seven or eight Navajo students. When he joined Coor’s staff as a special adviser in 1995, there were 672 Native American students, but Coor wanted to enroll more. His charge to Zah was to “see how we can improve.”

Zah went to the high schools in the Navajo Nation, spoke on radio and had interviews with newspapers. Ten years after he joined ASU, the number had risen to approximately 1,500. But that is still not enough for Zah. He wants Native American young people to go to ASU – or any college or university, or even a community college. “It doesn’t matter, as long as they get the experience,” he said.

And then he wants them to come home to “Navajo,” as he calls the nation. He said during a presentation at the Heard Museum in 2010, “We will need these young people to help build educational institutions and economic institutions, to run our governments, to teach our children’s children.”

Iverson, who has taught and written extensively about the nation, said, “The Navajo Nation is surely changing rapidly. The Navajos have always impressed me with their ability to bring in new elements and make them Navajo over time. Urbanization within the Navajo Nation comprises one of the biggest challenges. Ultimately Zah and I are optimistic about that future but we certainly don't imagine it will be easy.”

Zah at first was reluctant when Iverson approached him about collaborating on a book. He writes in the preface, “I believe in the beauty and the value of oral tradition so much that I hesitate translating my beliefs of Diné history, culture and customs to English.

“Oral tradition when translated no longer has the impact of our Navajo language; rather, the integrity of Diné values is given to a pen. The stories, values and traditions are supposed to be heard. Once written, oral tradition becomes compromised and stationary; it is no longer alive.”

But Zah recognizes that things are changing in the Navajo Nation, and he feels the responsibility of sharing his memories for future generations, albeit in written form.

Iverson said he thought about writing a book about Zah after inviting him from time to time to speak to his classes.

“Peterson often spoke about his own experiences and about continuity and change within the Navajo Nation. He made a strong impression on my students, regardless of their background. I wanted to share the story of his life and career with a wider audience.”

It was a life and career of challenges faced and challenges overcome, but Zah says, “I don’t consider myself an extraordinary Navajo person, rather a Navajo person who had extraordinary experiences. Ahéhee’ (thank you).”