Guest column: Memories that start with a pickup truck

Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah died late Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a lengthy illness, Navajo President Buu Nygren's office said. He was 85.(Photo/Navajo Nation Council)

Former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah died late Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a lengthy illness, Navajo President Buu Nygren's office said. He was 85.(Photo/Navajo Nation Council)

I am flooded today with memories of Peterson Zah.

The first time I met him was when I was covering the 1982 Navajo Nation election between Zah and Peter MacDonald Sr. One of the stories he told — and I used high up in the story — is now legend. If elected, he promised to quit using the chairman’s motorcade. “My pickup truck is fine for me,” he said. That white International Harvester became a symbol for the new style of leadership that he was bringing into the Navajo government after 12 years of MacDonald.

Zah’s leadership style was collaborative. He was patient. And best of all, he told stories.

One of his most important stories was about coal. Under existing leases set by the federal government, when he took office the Navajo Nation was receiving pennies for its precious resource. He used the phrase that the nation was giving away tons of coal for the price of “one soda pop.” A powerful image. It stuck. And the companies renegotiated leases that increased Navajo Nation revenue from about $7 million a year to $48 million a year. He later added a chapter to that story, making sure that much of that money could go into a permanent fund that would last a lot longer than his term in office.

Zah and my friend Loren Tapahe talked me into moving from Fort Hall, Idaho, to Navajo to edit the Navajo Times. It was a great adventure. When Zah and I talked about that move, Zah pressed and said if I really believed in a free press, and its potential, I should come down and work.

Zah was a champion of the free press — something that later got me into trouble. We were operating the Navajo Times as an independent entity (even though we were not). During that time we shifted from a weekly newspaper to producing a daily edition. In 1986 there was a rematch between Zah and MacDonald. I was sort of a one person editorial board — and without asking (or letting anyone on staff know) I wrote an editorial endorsing Peterson Zah for re-election. The editorial focused on his commitment to a free press. Many of my colleagues were angry. They felt blindsided and did not like the editorial because they felt it compromised their journalistic independence. Perhaps they were right. But I was compelled to write. One colleague wrote me a note about this being a brave act. Turned out he was right. I was fired after Peter MacDonald won office a few weeks later. He closed and restructured the newspaper as a tribal department. (It’s now an independent company.)

During the summer of 1985 the Zah administration and its attorney general Claudeen Bates Arthur led a remarkable round of negotiations to try and reach a settlement over the Navajo-Hopi land dispute. Zah argued that reasonable people ought to be able to sit under a tree until they find a path.

In August of that year President Ronald Reagan was in Albuquerque where he met with Chairman Zah and Hopi Chairman Ivan Sidney to kick start the process. I remember asking Zah something about the meeting and Reagan and he answered: “He is really old.” But the back and forth was serious. We were allowed to listen to a telephone report from the Washington negotiators with former Interior Secretary William Clark and the story is about how close it all came to a solution. There were moments when everyone thought there was a deal only to have it fall apart a few minutes later.

Instead Congress imposed a solution, including the painful relocation for those living across the other tribe’s boundary line.

A lighter memory is a trip into Canyon DeChelley with Robert Redford. Pete Zah was a master storyteller describing the history as well as the potential for a future. He used the land in his narrative. It did not surprise me that Sundance later became a champion for Indigenous filmmaking. The craft and draft was formed on that trip.

Many years later when I was working at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer the dean of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School, Chris Callihan, asked me to come visit and think about teaching there. Peterson Zah was working as the special advisor on Indian Affairs and he took me to lunch. He made the pitch on why I should come — then he said: “Don’t come to Phoenix just when the weather is nice. Be here year ‘round. Make a difference.” It was a hard sell. (I loved being an editorial page editor.)

Another favorite memory was a trip to San Francisco on a special plane (I think Zah was speaking). But it goes back to the pickup truck story. When we landed at the airport there was a Ford sedan, not black, picking us up at the airport. Later I was talking to the owner of the limousine company. He told me that he had to go to great lengths — renting a car from Hertz instead of using his own fleet. The image of a black limousine, even a black sedan, did not fit this client. He needed an ordinary car. The image was the story.

This morning I saw a quote from me in The New York Times from 1984. I was “a 27- year-old Shoshone-Bannock who is editor of The Navajo Times Today newspaper” and I compared him to Jimmy Carter. “‘When Pete came in, the expectation level was very high, just like with Jimmy Carter. And like Carter, he stands to lose a lot of good will if expectations aren’t met.”

That’s a measure that can now be answered. Zah’s contributions to the Navajo Nation, Arizona, and the country can fill volumes. But it starts with so many people doing the work he once championed. Faculty at ASU. Leaders of the Navajo Nation. People working on political campaigns. And even the young people who have never heard Zah’s name yet have opportunities to succeed because of the groundwork he laid.

Last story. I want to close with one about Zah’s kindness. My grandparents visited Window Rock and I gave them a tour of the newspaper and the Window Rock Tribal Park, including the chairman’s office. Zah heard about that — and invited them into his office. They visited a bit. Then he said he wanted to meet them so he could tell them they had a good son.

Mark Trahant


Indian Country Today

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