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Prominent Native American leader Peterson Zah to receive honorary degree
Zah is considered one of the 100 most important Native Americans in the last century
Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation 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, will receive an honorary degree from Arizona State University on May 12.
Amid the dignified pageantry of a procession of more than two dozen tribal leaders from around the nation, Zah will be draped with a hand-woven leadership blanket, after receiving the honorary doctorate from ASU President Michael Crow. The ceremony will be part of ASU’s spring commencement at 10 a.m. in Wells Fargo Arena.
Zah was elected the first president of the Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the U.S., in 1990. Earlier he had been chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council, leading the movement to restructure and modernize their governmental system from a council to a nation. Throughout his career he has made education his first priority.
Zah has worked for 30 years to defend the interests of all Native American people and is widely respected among the Arizona tribes. Largely because of his intense focus on education, the Navajos 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 American 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 Association.
“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,” says President Crow. “He is also one of ASU’s most distinguished alumni.”
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 his people.
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 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 which 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 Native Americans from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He also has received honorary doctorates from Colorado College and the College of Santa Fe.
By Sarah Auffret. Auffret, with Marketing and Strategic Communication, can be reached at (480) 965-6991.
April 25, 2005