Peterson Zah

Peterson Zah

Founder, Restore Harmony

Dr. Peterson Zah is a Diné from the Navajo Nation. Zah has worked for over 30 years to defend the interests of all Native American people and is widely respected among U.S. tribes.

In 1995, Dr. Zah was recruited by ASU to help address the education concerns of the growing Native American student population and their respective communities. He currently serves as the Special Adviser to ASU President on American Indian Affairs. 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 has also allowed for creating one of the largest and most profound groups of American Indian faculty members in the country; totaling 26. Throughout his career he has made education his first priority. In the fall of 2004 he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Indian Education Association.

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, AZ. 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 Training Center.

Quickly proving his leadership abilities, he is co-founder and later 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, 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.

Zah who is considered one of the 100 most important Native Americans in the last century and a key leader in Native American government and education, received an Honorary Doctoral Degree of Humane Letters from Arizona State University in 2005. He is also the recent recipient of the 2008 Martin Luther King, Jr. Servant Leadership Award.