We Will Secure Our Future: Empowering the Navajo NationMay 15th, 2013 | By bshreve | Category: 24-4: Language Revitalization, Media Reviews
By Peterson Zah and Peter Iverson
University of Arizona Press (2012)
Review by Bradley Shreve
In this captivating book, Navajo leader Peterson Zah reflects on his life’s work and offers his vision for the future of the Diné. Zah collaborates with historian Peter Iverson who offers historical context at the beginning of each chapter. The result is the inspirational story of a man who as a child experienced hunger and grew up in a one-room hogan without electricity, but through hard work, perseverance, and a burning desire to uplift his people rose to become president of the Navajo Nation.
Like many Navajos, Zah had a traditional upbringing in a rural part of the reservation. His mother spoke only Navajo and herded sheep for a living. The Zah family lived near the current Hopi-Navajo border and was forced to relocate on several occasions due to the emerging dispute between the two neighboring nations. From a young age, Zah recognized the importance of education as articulated by the great Navajo leader Manuelito and set off with his cousins for Tuba City, where he enrolled at the local boarding school. From there he eventually transferred to the Phoenix Indian School and completed high school. Some of his teachers discouraged Zah from continuing his education, with one instructor telling him that he would make “a good laborer,” but that he would never succeed in college.
Of course Peterson Zah would go on to graduate from Arizona State University and work for DNA People’s Legal Services, where he would make a name for himself as a defender of the people’s rights. In 1982, the man from Low Mountain was elected chairman (later changed to president) of the Navajo Nation. As chief executive of the largest Indian nation in the United States, Zah’s achievements were many. He challenged energy companies that for too long had exploited the Navajo people. He set up a permanent trust fund for future generations. And he worked with Hopi leaders to peacefully resolve the long-simmering border dispute.
Zah’s story is remarkable, but more important is his vision for empowering the Navajo Nation. He stresses the fundamental importance of education, cultural preservation, and for Navajo leaders to think about future generations. For Zah, it’s not the individual that matters most, it’s the community. “My hope,” Zah affirms, “is that the young Navajo people today will not abandon the value of helping and will continue to honor our traditions.”
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D. taught history at Diné College and is now managing editor of the Tribal College Journal.