Peterson Zah: Native Nation Building: The Place of Education

American Indian Studies Program

Dr. Peterson Zah, former Chairman and President of the Navajo Nation, discusses the importance of higher education in empowering Native nations' efforts to achieve their nation-building goals. He also discusses the Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund as an example of the strategic orientation that Native nations need to have if they are going to truly become self-sufficient.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Zah, Peterson. "Native Nation Building: The Place of Education." American Indian Studies Program, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. September 23, 2013. Presentation.

Peterson Zah:

“[Navajo language]. Thank you, Manley [Begay], for the introduction and then thank you all for being here today to share some ideas, some things that we all as Native community need to think about as well as discuss among ourselves. I really appreciate the invitation to come here.

In working with Diane Humetewa, most of you know she’s a very fine lawyer. She’s the former U.S. Attorney and now has been nominated by the [Obama] Administration to become the next federal judge here in Tucson and she’s one of these scholars that we rarely have as American Indian, Native people. And I think...and I believe what Manley says that some day you’re going to hear more about her because of her commitment to...the concept of justice and she’s that good, just really an outstanding citizen.

My talk as I understand it from little brother here says talk about nation building. I think nation building is the way to go in sovereign Indian Country problem nowadays. We’ve come a long ways where we would take an issue by itself and maybe an issue with a certain group and we try to work with that specific group in trying to resolve the issue, but we have come this far where we now have to work with other entities around that group. No problem has ever been resolved satisfactorily when groups are trying to do that by themselves. You have to work with other entities. There’s just no way around the whole idea.

When I went to Arizona State University, I wanted to increase the student population because that’s what the president wanted. He says, ‘We get American Indian students and we can’t seem to go above 672 and when we do, they leave us the next year and we need to keep them there.’ That was his charge. And then I started thinking, ‘Well, he hasn’t given me any staff or any money so this means I’ve got to do this alone.’ And I knew that I can’t do something like that alone. I’ve got to involve other people, I’ve got to reach out, I’ve got to change the concept of how people recruit students.

And so I went over to the recruitment office and I says, ‘Can you guys tell me where you recruit more students for ASU [Arizona State University]?’ And then they started going to the board and they said, ‘New York City, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Colorado.’ And I was sitting there and I said, ‘What about Indian reservation?’ And one guy who was the director says, ‘We don’t go Indian reservations because there’s...when we drive out there, there’s nobody around.’ And the guys says, ‘I drove across from Flagstaff, Arizona, through Hopi, all the way out to Gallup, New Mexico, and I saw two people.’ And the guy was trying to justify why they don’t go to an Indian reservation and I told him, I says, ‘You know what, they’re underneath all those bushes. You have to beat the bushes for them to get up and then when they get up, you grab them by the neck and then you drag them here to the university. And when they come, make sure that you educate all the staff people here at this university to welcome them, give them a reception, a warm welcome. You people don’t do that. You don’t do that.’ And so that’s how the recruitment got started.

And for me personally instead of trying to hit the different meetings or tribal council meeting or to the school board meeting, I go to a Yeibicheii dance, traditional Navajo dances, and I grab the microphone and while the Yeibicheiis are dancing away, I’m talking about education and trying to convince the parents that any child who’s able, capable, academically inclined, have a desire to better their lot, those individuals should be given an opportunity. And so basically that was the approach that we use to get students to come to these institution because the normal process sometimes don’t work. You have to think out of the box and maybe do strange things to get people over to where you want them to be.

And so I was so happy in 2008, a Navajo student came to me and she says, ‘Mr. Zah, I want to look at your calendar.’ Look at my calendar? I thought she was there to discuss a problem that she might have and I thought to myself, ‘Well, there’s nothing to seeing my calendar with her,’ and so I opened my calendar and then she says, ‘Mark that date!’ And I said, ‘What’s happening on that day?’ It’s like, ‘Graduation at ASU.’ And I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ She says, ‘I don’t know, but I want you to be there, we want you to be there. We, the graduating students and faculty.’ So I marked it on my calendar and that day I went over to Grady Gammage Auditorium and I was there for the graduation and I thought that...two days before the graduation I thought she might come back in, ‘And I know she wanted me...maybe she wants me to talk,’ so I started writing my speech. And being ready so that when she comes back, I’ll say, 'Yes,' and then I’m the speaker.

She came back in and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got it all written out.’ And she says, ‘Written out what?’ And I said, ‘My talk.’ And she said, ‘No. We don’t want you to talk.’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And she says, ‘All we want you to do is sit on the stage.’ And I said, ‘What’s happening?’ She says, ‘All of the work that we have been able...’ and she was one of these students that was very active. ‘All the work that we have done recruiting, retention, increasing the graduation rate, all of that, the cumulative of all of the hard work you’re going to see in May on that date at ASU graduation.’ So I went, again I wasn’t happy with our conversation. I says, ‘What do you specifically want me to do when I’m sitting on the stage?’ And she said, ‘Smile. Smile. You’re going to be happy and you’re going to be smiling.’

And what she meant was that, 'We’re going to have over 300 American Indian students graduating and we’re going to march them in from your left, they’re going to get their diploma, because there are so many of them we’re going to have some more on your right and they’re going to get their diploma and you’ll be sitting there, these are all your students that you recruited. And out of that group we’ve got 22 doctorate, 56 master’s degree,' and many, many of those students became principals, teachers. Many of the master’s degree students were in charge of programs in Navajo.

And so when you get other people involved in the recruitment that you’re trying to do, that is something that you should look at as your goal because you can’t do it by yourself, you can’t do it alone. You’ve got to get other people involved. So basically that was something that ASU enjoyed and that was the day I decided in my own head, ‘We’ll never match that again, so I’m going to resign and retire.’ So the next year I left and I’ve been in retirement for the last...going into my fourth year. I thought I was going to stay home. I even bought a rocking chair and I wanted to just sleep, but it didn’t happen that way. There’s more work at home and if you’re not connected to any program, if you’re not a tribal employee or university employee or state employee, you can do many things because you’re free. You’re free.

And so basically, with me, since my retirement, I’ve been just working out with people in trying to improve their programs; many, many of them that need political muscle because here’s what’s happening, for those of you that are American Indian students and Navajo students, particularly. We have out on the Navajo, for example, Navajo Housing Authority, Navajo Oil & Gas, Navajo Gaming Enterprise; we have all these other divisions, there’s hundreds of them. All of the young, articulate, smart Navajo students are running those projects, rightfully so, except they’re not very well versed in their own peoples’ language, lifestyle. They have a hard time communicating sometimes with the elderly people. And they have a hard time communicating with their own tribal council members so they come looking for me to re-teach in many ways, to have them re-learn this whole idea of Navajo way. And so that’s how I’m helping some of those programs and projects. You take two entities, one is the council of 24 and let’s say Navajo Oil & Gas and then I start talking to them and say, ‘These guys are into oil and gas business. Navajo Gaming Enterprise is into gaming business. They’re also now in hospitality business, whether we like it or not. They have hotels. Do we as a traditional people know all that much about hospitality business? So how do we as American Indian people explain that to the elderly people?’ And so that has been my work and the chair back at home stays there and maybe on occasion it rocks, but I’m still out there doing things that really needed to be done.

And so for those of you that are young, I would recommend that you spend less time with this little gadget here and maybe pay more attention to what your grandma and grandpa has to say because that becomes even more important. I go to these dinners sometimes with people. I never turn down a dinner with people that I’m working with because I like to eat, just like anybody. When I sit down and eat with people, there’s all these people that comes in and they have dinners with maybe their grandchildren, their siblings, sons and daughters and when I look over to that table, the young ones are all on their cell phone and their computers and they don’t talk. They don’t talk. The Navajo is following suit. They’re exactly doing the same thing and that’s why I always tell the young people, ‘When you’re with grandma and grandpa, turn them off. It won’t hurt you.’ Turn them off because they have so much to offer that sometimes we have a hard time trying to acquire through normal ways. And that’s why you have a high-paid CEO for let’s say Navajo Gaming, Navajo Oil & Gas. The Oil & Gas CEO is an engineer. He’s only maybe one of the very few, two or three, that knows how to talk Navajo that can talk still to the council, but still has problems with trying to figure out the political ways of the Navajo people.

So when Manley says this is a class or this is a talk around nation building, we really, really need to do that because Indian tribes are nations and we’re trying to build Indian nations to be like a state, not necessarily a state, but like a state and be able to learn how to operate that government. We’ve got...we came a long ways, we’ve still got some...a ways more to go, but we’re getting there and so I always like the concept of nation building. Navajo Nation years ago has taken on that task where much, much of...some of the trust funding, just trust money that we created goes into nation-building concept, so that using the nation-building concept, those trust money goes to the chapter houses and they talk about their problems, decide how they should use those monies. So trust money is beginning to really help out the Navajo people. Manley mentioned something about the trust money, let me just tell you a little about it.

For any tribal nations building a trust fund is really, really hard because there’s a tremendous need from the local community and from the local people in terms of satisfying some of those needs and you need resources. So you’re a little weird if you become the tribal chair or the president and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to save some money.’ People look at you very funny and they say, ‘Save money? We got elected, we’ve got to deliver services so therefore we need more money.’ There’s that mentality. If you were elected you’d probably end up doing the same thing. So I was with this weird group that said, ‘We’ve got to save some money,’ because if you look at the Navajo revenues, we’re getting about 75 to 80 percent of our revenues comes from the coal and some day the coal is going to be gone. Some day the mineral resources are all going to be gone. Some day the timbers are going to be no longer there. It seems to me and it only makes common sense to save some of that money now to secure the future generation of the Navajo people and that’s why we created the Navajo Trust Fund.

Up to that time there was kind of a bad word to use when you mentioned trust and the trust fund came about because Navajo Nation won a United States Supreme Court lawsuit in 1984 in Kerr-McGee v. the Navajo Nation and we went through a lot with that particular case. And I remember sitting in the council when we spent days about how we should handle the lawsuit. At that time the Navajo lawyers, there were no, well, very few Navajo lawyers, Navajo people who became lawyers. And one of your esteemed members of the faculty here, Judge Austin, was one of those young people. And when we were doing that, talking about how it should be handled, Navajo council was saying that, ‘We’ve got to get the best lawyer in the United States. We’re in Supreme Court. We want to appropriate a million dollars. So Mr. Zah, you go find that person and we’ll pay them a million dollars to defend us.’ That one thought, but I knew that there was two or three Navajo lawyers at the time. Claudine Bates Arthur was one of them, Louis Denetsosie was the other one, Herbert Yazzie was another one. And so we had few Navajo lawyers and we decided that maybe what we should do is call on a Navajo and that person can choose anyone he or she wants to handle the case with them in Supreme Court. And so we brought in the group and we interviewed them and I don’t know if there’s anyone here who knew Claudine Bates Arthur. Claudine Bates Arthur was a Navajo gal that was about that high. Her father was a Tachii’nii, so is this man here, my father’s a Tachii’nii, so is Manley, so that makes her my sister and I used to call her [Navajo language], my little sister. And I says, ‘Can you handle it?’ ‘Oh, my god, handle a Supreme Court case in the United States?’ and by that time she was out maybe five years, six years out of law school. She had a good friend, Elizabeth Bernstein who now lives here, east of us here in a community. She chose Elizabeth Bernstein. So the two of them, we used to fly into Phoenix and we had these mock trial. We selected judges or lawyers that knows Indian law and they acted as justices, four or five of them and they made their presentation. Then we had some more lawyers to critique them. We went over that, over and over so many times before we ever got into Supreme Court.

When we went into Supreme Court, I was there with Edward T. Begay, who was the vice president, and maybe one or two council delegates and we were sitting in the front row just like the way you’re sitting here. And when the United States Supreme Court justices came in, nine of them, they all sat, it was kind of scary, intimidated by those people that know justice, that knows the law so much to be sitting there. And Claudine and Elizabeth did a really, really good job in making their presentation. And at the end of that day we were so happy and some good question, good question, outstanding questions by the justices. And the one thing that I remember at my age you have a tendency to forget things, I don’t even know what I did yesterday, but I remember specifically one justice said to Kerr-McGee, who was extracting coal in the Farmington area that filed a suit against the Navajo Nation, one justice says to Kerr-McGee lawyer, ‘Your client, when they went out to Navajo Reservation out there, did they go out there on their own will? And then went and found the Navajo coal and then they went to the tribal council and asked for a lease? Or did the Navajo Nation seek them out in the community and then against their will brought them over to the Navajo Nation and had them work there to extract coal? What happened?’ And the answer was that ‘we went out there on our own will.’ ‘And are you being taxed wherever you are operating?’ They were asked that question. And they said, ‘Yeah, everywhere we go we’re being taxed except the Navajo,’ and that’s what this case is all about. So the justice says, ‘Then what makes you think that it’s okay with you that you’re paying taxes to all those other states in the other areas except the Navajo? You have to pay taxes too because they’re looking for revenues. Their people are hungry and their people need jobs.’ And that justice really went into the lawyer from the other side and I think that’s what the case really turned on. That was the last time Navajo Nation won a legal case in United States Supreme Court and that’s when we won over $177 million.

The question was, ‘When the $177 million that we got, what do you do with that money?’ I was the tribal chair. I was the most popular guy in Window Rock because the bank just turned over all that money and I was maybe, looked like you, nice, young, handsome. And I had that money and it was almost up to me and the council as to what we wanted to do. What would you do if you’re being put in that position? Just think about it. What would you do? Wanting advice, seeking advice. You know where I went? Not to New York City on the Wall Street, not to any of the money managers -- I went to my mother, who was a traditional Navajo person with sheep. And I was telling her what had happened, that we got a lot of money that we won and I said, ‘Mother, if you were me, what would you do with it? If you were a member of the council, what would you recommend?’ And she says a question back to me and said, ‘Can money be treated like a sheep?’ Uh, can money be sheep? And what she meant was this. She says, ‘I’ve been a sheepherder all my life and I have this size corral and 200 to 300 sheep can get in there. And when I have that many sheep, I can sell them, I can feed you kids. We can have mutton day and night if you have that many sheep, it won’t affect our herd.’ And she says, ‘Remember one time you were a freshman in college at ASU when our herd went all the way down and we only had 15.' 'That was a pathetic sight,’ she says. ‘We only had 15. And I told you kids, I gathered you kids, your sisters and your brothers, and I said, ‘you can’t have any mutton this year.’ That 15 has to grow back up. If we wait one year, that 15 is going to be 30. If we wait another year, that 30 is going to turn to 60 and then we’re going to be back at the comfortable level.’' Her question was, ‘Can you treat money the same way you treat sheep?’ And when I heard that, I says, ‘Ah ha, she’s talking about trust. She’s talking about creating trust fund.’ So you put money in the bank and the money will grow.

And I went back to Window Rock really, really happy, thinking to myself, ‘There’s the answer and I’d gotten advice from somebody and I don’t even have to pay her.’ And so that’s how the trust money came about and the trust money right now is almost two billion. It goes back and forth depending on the economy and what’s happened at Wall Street. And when we get over to two billion, they’ll probably get another A rating. So this time it’ll be Double A. So that’s where Navajo Nation is right now. The council has already decided to use interest earned to build the casinos. So using the, and not the principal, the interest earned, [Navajo language]. Each year they decided to use that. So just think about it this way, if you have almost two billion, let’s say you have two billion, if the interest rate is five percent, how much is that? If the interest rate is 10 percent of the two billion, how much is that? They’re using that money, but not spending the principal. So using the interest earned they were able to build the casino at Gallup, Fire Rock. They were able to build Farmington, New Mexico. What was the name for that? Northern Edge. Navajos, they always give their own name to these places. At Gallup, [Navajo language]. Fire Rock, [Navajo language]. There’s a fire, then you just sit around the fire. They haven’t given the Twin Arrow a name yet, it’s too new, but they used that money to build that and the one at Ship Rock and then now with the Twin Arrow so all that trust money, interest that they earned each year was used for that.

Why am I telling you this? We’re talking about nation building that you have that class here, that’s what the course is about. Navajo is the only tribe that I know where in the process of building those casinos, they didn’t have to go to the bank. They didn’t go to Wells Fargo. They used their own money to build those casinos. So during the grand opening, the first customer that came in and spent the money that went to Navajo into the tribal treasury. All these other casinos, I stayed at the one over here and I donated last night and that money goes over to Wells Fargo and it’s going to be like that for I don’t know how many years, 20 or 30 years. So the whole idea of trust, creating a trust fund, that’s what it did. That’s what it did. And you have to understand the principle, interest earned; the principle, interest earned. We can’t allow the council to spend and go after the principal, almost two billion. People always ask me, ‘[Navajo language]. Why are you so stingy with that money?’ They ask me. And here’s what I tell them. I tell them that ‘If we do a good job of handling this trust money and then we wait another 15, 17, 18 more years, it could be up to three or four billion. If we wait another 10 more years, it could be up to five billion and it’s just going to keep on growing. And if we don’t allow the council to spend that principal, you know what could happen? 20 more years the whole Navajo Nation can live off the interest that it earns each year and we don’t have to beg anybody for any money elsewhere. That’s what it means.’

But it took a lot of courage, it took a lot of spunk to do that because it was an unusual thing to do at the time, it still is an unusual thing for anybody to do. That was one of the things that we did during our administration. Karen [Francis-Begay] is here, my daughter. Her father took part working with me at the time to create the trust fund and we had that in mind. So it’s getting there. It’s getting there. But the thing about it is this. Every once in a while the council would [say], ‘Pete Zah out there?’ ‘No.’ [Navajo language] ‘Well, let’s go. We have $1.7 billion. Can you make a motion to get $500 million out of there?’ [Navajo language] So I guess by saying that, we need more people to safeguard, to safeguard that principal in the trust fund. I’m telling you only one trust fund. There’s 10 others. There’s 11 trust funds. So it was something new that was happening back then and it didn’t come from an individual with a big huge doctorate, university degree. It came from a sheepherder -- the suggestion, the idea. So you should never sell yourself short. Idea can move mountains. Idea is something that is a very, very powerful thing, particularly if you move it. It can move at its own pace and that’s why you’re going to college and the importance of going to college here really expands your mind so that you’re well versed in what’s going on in the world. And that’s something that I think all of the people that work with the students should realize and recognize that that’s the way to do it is to get that college education. So it’s important that you continue to work in those ways.

The other thing that I wanted to just tell you is that Navajo Nation is embarking on many, many major decisions right now, huge decisions. Because if you look at what’s happening to the coal industry, the whole nation is moving away from the use of coal to produce electricity. Right now, Navajo has a role in deciding something about the electricity. So this thing probably comes from Navajo. So if Navajo don’t want to get into that, we can go over to the light and turn it off. This electricity comes from Navajo coal, but EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] is really clamping down on fossil fuel, the use of fossil fuel to produce electricity and Arizona Public Service, all of the entities like them are beginning to suggest to the Navajo people that they should sell their power plant. So you have a power plant over in Page, I think four or five units there. You have a power plant over in Farmington, New Mexico, four or five units there. Those guys who own that, all of a sudden in the year 2013 became such nice guys. They want to sell it to the Navajo Nation. They’ve been mean all these hundred years, but one day somebody told them, ‘You’ve got to be nice to them,’ and so they’re saying, ‘We’re going to sell it to you for $182 million,’ or whatever it is. What do you think about it? For me, we’re going to be buying a used car. You know what I mean? A used car that has, what? 400,000 miles on it? And that’s going to cost us a lot of money. It’s up for discussion right now and you should be able to participate and all of the other things that will go with it. So here’s what I can’t really see, EPA, if you read...last night, I read another article that came out in USA Today how all of these plants are going to be shut down and new plants, they’re not going to be allowed to build new plants using fossil fuel and that means that electricity-producing firms are going to go to the natural gas. And why are we sitting in the council talking about the use of fossil fuel when EPA’s doing what they’re doing? It just doesn’t really make any sense. So you should participate in those discussions and see where you come out with your question on the proposed activities. And as a student, as a young person, I think you should try those kinds of discussions among and with your own people.

I really like what you are doing here regarding some of the classes that you are having. The students seem to be very well engaged in what goes on, they want to learn. And then for those of you that are Native American, education is so important in your life and in our lives. The Navajo people for example have come a long, long ways going all the way back 100 years ago, even 50 years, 60 years ago. In 1940, 1945 the United States discovered that there were 37,000 Navajo people that are of school age that had not enrolled in a school, that were not going to school. Imagine that: 37,000 Navajo people not in school of school age. I was one of them. I was one of them. So United States devise a program called Special Navajo Program and they put me into that institution and I became a student at Phoenix Indian School way back in 1948. And I always tell my grandchildren, ‘That program was called Special Navajo Program, so I’m special.’ And it was a program where you went to school for five years, only five years and they gave you a diploma, a certificate that shows to the market out there in the community that you’re a good worker, you’re a good carpenter, you’re a good painter, you’re a plumber. These are all the things that you’re good at and then they give you a certificate and they kick you out of the school. So I was on that program and something like the last week of school I decided, ‘I want to go to college!’ And the teachers would laugh, ‘You want to go to college? My god, you should have decided that 20 years ago.’ But I have a little fire in me and I decided as I was walking out almost practically crying that, ‘I’m going to show these guys and I’m going to invite them some day when I’m graduating from a university. To hell with them.’ And so that challenge is important because most of the teachers there, they said, ‘You can’t do it. You’ll never do it.’ When I was graduating from ASU in 1962 getting my degree in education, I sent a personal invitation to all of these teachers that were still at Indian School. None of them came. I wasn’t disappointed, but none of them came. I’m telling you that because you can’t always depend on those kinds of things. It’s what you’ve got in here. It’s what you have in here. It’s a desire that you have to do certain things.

So when I came back on the Navajo Reservation, I knew that there were some things that really needed to be done. And from DNA People’s Legal Services Program I decided that there were some people who were asking me to run for the tribal chair and there were a lot of people that said, ‘You can’t do it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, my god, that’s what they said back there.’ ‘You can’t do it because Peter MacDonald has all the power. He has all of the money,’ and they had a magazine, they had a magazine called Mother Jones Magazine. I don’t know if you remember and they had a picture of him with holding the coal saying, ‘The most powerful Indian in America,’ and so people that found out I was running they said, ‘See, you’re not going to win.’ Well, that was all I needed. That was all I needed. So when people say that, it kind of makes me angry, makes me angry and I want to prove to them that they are wrong.

The same thing as when I went to work at ASU, there was a provost -- imagine that, a provost -- he’s in second command. One day he walked into my office, I was sitting there trying to think how I should do certain things about our American Indian program and the provost sat down, he introduced himself and he says, ‘Pete, I’ve been reading all these rules, statistics, data, and you’re in charge of American Indian programs.' 'My advice to you,’ he says, ‘is that any American Indian who wants to enroll at ASU, we should just send him away. We should send him away to a school where they can last at that school and get their degree. This record shows that we’re losing them left and right and they never stay. We’ve got one of the poorest record on Native American retention so my advice to you is instead of getting some more white hair over that issue, we should just send them away. You’ll be doing them a favor.’ That was what the provost told me. True story. The exact words. So when I heard that, I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, that’s what Phoenix Indian School told me. That’s what the election process on the Navajo, some of those people told me. Now, Mr. Provost, you’re the third one.’ So I made sure in May of 2008 when all these kids were graduating, getting their degree, I invited him. I invited him and I had him sit in the front row. I wasn’t smiling like the way the student wanted me to. I was smiling at him.

So you’ve got to have that desire, you’ve got to have that fire in you. You’re the only person that knows yourself best, when to do some of these things. And so don’t ever fall for people that are trying to shortchange you because they don’t know you. You’re the only one that knows what your capabilities are. So I just wanted to leave you with that and be able to use that. I used to be a basketball coach because I played ball at Phoenix College. And one of the things that I learned from the coach was that there are some kids you have to baby, you have to baby them and say, ‘Hey, that was not right, son.’ You have to put your arm around them, you practically have to cry for them to learn. There are some other people that you have to shake, get after them. So using that psychology, different people because of our chemistry, we get motivated in different ways by different methods. You need to find your niche and what that niche is, what excites you, that’s I think very important thing to learn in life. And that I also want to leave with you and thank you for the invitation. [Navajo language]."

Manley Begay:

"Yeah, go ahead here then over there. Go ahead.”

Audience member:

“I was just wondering, today are any of the other tribes in the state trying to do the endowment approach, do you know?”

Peterson Zah:

“The reason why I’m telling you about the trust fund and endowment is that we have Indian tribes who are into casino that are beginning to make money, not a whole lot. If you’re a member of that particular tribe, then you should encourage them that while they can, while they’re making money to create endowment funds for the nation because you’d be surprised how fast that works. That’s your security. It’s like a child having a security blanket. It’s something that I think you need to encourage them. The question over here was the endowed funds over at ASU, the one that Manley was referring to, what’s happening there is this. Sandra Day O’Connor is the person that the law school was named after at ASU and she’s doing a good job working with the university in bringing in funds to the law school. What university has decided is to use my name and raise money using my name so that they can keep the Indian Law program going in perpetuity. Any money they get, they’re going to put it into trust, and then using the interest earned they’re going to go out and hire the most prominent Indian lawyer and have them teach that course one year or two years. After the two years is up, they’re going to bring in another person using that endowed money and then they’re going to have that person give them service for another year or two years. And if you have money endowed and put into trust, that thing can keep on going forever and that’s what they’re trying to do.”

Audience member:

Last year, about a year ago, the Resources and Development Committee in conjunction with the Dine College, they hosted that 'Nation Building Summit.' And I think shortly after you wrote an editorial to The Navajo Times and I think you had cautioned people about the like -- how can I phrase this -- like the council is approaching the spending of the permanent trust fund without much planning. And so if at any point it goes to referendum and the people indeed do choose to spend that money for whatever purposes, infrastructure, development or whatever, what kind of -- from your perspective -- what kind of planning do you think the students now within their education should be focusing on if that happens?”

Peterson Zah:

“There’s 110 chapters on the Navajo Nation. There’s 24 council [members]. What she’s referring to is a year ago the Navajo Nation Committee of RDC, Resource Development Committee, the Resource Development Committee decided that, ‘When we go out to these 110 chapters, they always have some needs, whether that’s employment, whether that’s materials for the chapter house, whether that’s food for the people to eat, they always have a need,’ they said. ‘But we don’t have any money,’ they said. ‘So why don’t we ask all these 110 chapters to come in and we’ll ask each one of these 110 chapters what they want.’ Christmas in the middle of the summer, so to speak, ‘and then we’ll add up that money, however many it is, we’ll add it up and then we’ll go to...’ At that time the trust money was at $1.5 billion. They said, ‘We’ll get the numbers from the 110 chapters, we’ll add it up and that’s how much money we’re going to get out.’ And it was anywhere from $75 to $150 million. That’s a lot. $75 to $150 million and all the 110 chapters were represented, RDC members were there, the council delegates of 24, some of them were there.”

Manley Begay:

“We were there, the two of us.”

Peterson Zah:

“Well, this is a Navajo trick between him and I. I was not really invited to be there, but they invited Manley to be a guest speaker the second morning, the second day. And Manley comes up to me in the morning and he says, ‘Why don’t I speak for a little while and then when all the people come back, I’ll give you the floor. I’ll yield my time over to you and then you can speak to the group.’ So I said to him, ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do, let’s do it.’ So it was a deal, Navajo trick. And so he gets up there and the chairman of the RDC gives him the mic and he was speaking away and then he says, ‘You know, we haven’t really asked a guy who created those money and save all of that much money. Nobody’s ever asked him. He’s sitting here. So I’m going to ask Mr. Zah to come up and see what he thinks. Is this the money that we could use for what is being discussed yesterday and today? So why don’t you come up and say something.’ So he stepped down, the chair then got up and she said, ‘Okay, Mr. Zah, get up and you talk. Here your brother’s given some time. Whatever amount of time he has left, you could use it.’ Well, that was all I needed. That was all I needed and I told about how the trust money was created, how the case was handled, who handled the case and then I told them about creating an escrow fund.

I says, ‘This is...this case that we won is over taxation and we’re going to tax all the companies that operate on the Navajo Nation and we want to build an escrow account so that while the case is pending in court, they could be paying. So each year the companies can pay into an escrow account the money that they’re supposed to pay for that year. And I told the companies, I brought in the companies just like you, there were a lot of people there, the president of Peabody, the president of this and the president of this, they were all there and I told them, I said, ‘You know, you guys sued me and why don’t we have an agreement? We’re in court. Why don’t we create an escrow account over at the bank and then you pay your money into that account? If you beat me, then you take all the money back. If we win, then we get all the money. That’s a fair deal. That’s America. Competition.’ [Navajo language] And so they agreed to it. And I told that story to the people and I says, ‘You know, it’s like this, we put a bucket here. It’s raining or there’s snow and the water is dripping [Navajo Language]. The water is dripping into that bucket and all during that time when it was dripping it start building up to over $270 million and then we won and we got that money. And then we ran to the bank to put it back into trust for your children [Navajo language].'

Now this council here, they want to take the money out. It’s like taking food out of your own grandchildren [Navajo language]. Now these guys have a legal problem, the council [Navajo language].’ I said, ‘Some of them were criminally charged for misusing the discretionary fund.’ [Navajo language] I said, ‘They were using discretionary funds and they ran out of that discretionary fund so they’re looking at that. That’s what they want.’ Oh, those guys started listening and I told them, I said, ‘My recommendation is that we leave this alone until they take care of their legal problem, until the court says, ‘No, they’re not guilty’ [Navajo language]. I just don’t trust them. When they get some of that money out, they’re going to go back to that discretionary fund. There’s no use in hiding. I’m an old man, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’m your cheii’.’ [Navajo language] And that’s when all hell broke loose. And so we end that...we ended that where the people went back into their respective groups because they were having a big breakout session and they all decided that, ‘No, we don’t want to spend the money. We want to save. We want to save for our children, generations of Navajo people, not now.’ [Navajo language] These guys still have legal problems that hasn’t been cleared up in court.

That’s the way you have to be. You see that thing that I was talking to you about, the little fire inside of you, the little fire inside of you. You’ve got to have a courage to do all of this. I don’t know what they think, but from that day on I was not a popular person with the council. But that’s okay, the hell with them. I helped them. I helped them, but when they decided to deliberately mislead the people and do something wrong, somebody has to speak up. So essentially, that’s my work unfortunately right now. But it’s okay because as Navajo people say, 'The elderly people have lot of wisdom, and it’s something that we use based on our experience.' And so that’s what happened in relative to your question.”

Manley Begay:

“I attended all these sessions, these breakout sessions. My brother says there’s 110 chapters, there’s 300,000 Navajos, we have 27,000 square miles of land, we have every issue under the sun: water issues, land issues, road issues, sewer issues, housing issues, elder issues, veterans issues and the list goes on. So all these breakout sessions dealt with these issues at Navajo. So what they were doing was, ‘Okay, here are our needs: elders issues, veterans issues, so forth and so on, children’s issues, education issues,’ and they tacked on dollar amounts to them. In the half a day that $1.5 billion was gone, it was gone. And they were saying the need was even greater than $1.5 billion, which is true, but if you want to secure your future as a nation, you have to save that money. You’ve got to think way ahead, not right now, but way ahead because the Navajo Nation is going to get stronger, the grandkids are going to come, the great grandkids are going to come. You’ve got to think way ahead. You can’t just spend all this money now. So when I went to these sessions, that’s what was going on. After my brother spoke, people said, ‘Wait a minute, [Navajo language], wait a minute. Let’s think about this a little bit more clearly. Let’s not just think about ourselves, let’s think about the future,’ and that’s what happened. So everything got stopped. Now we’re beginning to see the rewards of the money being set aside. Just spend the interest, don’t spend the principal because the principal was already spent, it was gone, it’s gone. Once it’s gone, it’s not going to come back. So if it’s going to be the Navajo Nation Permanent Trust Fund, let’s make it permanent, let’s not make it temporary. It doesn’t say 'Navajo Nation Temporary Fund,' it’s a permanent fund for the future. So that’s what my brother did, put that together. Another question.”

Audience member:

“Could you speak a little bit how you went about establishing the Supreme Court for Navajo Nation?”

Peterson Zah:

“Supreme Court was something was considered in reaction to what was going on at the time. This is really, really crazy. There was a suit that was filed against the tribal council and one of the judges had the case and that judge ruled against the council on an issue. So the council then decided or that particular delegate then decided to share the issue with the rest of the council and the rest of the council said, ‘Well, instead of talking about all this, let’s just get rid of the crazy judge,’ and so they did. Another issue came about almost identical, a different judge handled it this time and the tribal council lost again so the council said, ‘Well, let’s get rid of that guy, too.’ And when you start getting rid of judges like that consistently, it means you’re sending a message to the world that you have inconsistent thinking, inconsistent tribal government and that they’re not stable. It needs to be stabilized. So we created a Supreme Court where we said, ‘Council has to get out of there. They should not be doing what they’re doing,’ and so we created the Supreme Court. And they were an entity unto themselves and I ended up as an individual that chose as a chairman of the tribe...that chose the Supreme Court justice and the panel of the Supreme Court. And so now it became a three-branch government. So the courts and judicial system is one, legislative, and the executive branch. So they’re deciding on many of those issues without having to fear that the council may go after them and that was the purpose of Navajo Nation Supreme Court. Supreme Court did a lot of things. They created what they call peacemaking process, peacemaker court. Peacemaker court is another concept of...another way of settling disputes and the way the Navajos were doing it, it went over wild, all over the place, even the states were calling in the Navajo Nation tribal judges to talk to the state judges about how they’re dong theirs. It went everywhere. The Navajo courts were a consistent guest at Harvard University, Yale, Stanford, all those big law schools where they conducted some of those sessions and so...then it even got recognized internationally. So under that kind of independent court/judicial system, they did a lot. And that was the purpose for creating the nation’s court, Supreme Court, and now they’re kind of like a model to all of the other Indian tribes. And you have a situation now where the Navajo judges are people, Navajo people who have law degree that are sitting there that talks Navajo. They can go back and forth on the values of those two entities. And the outside people, the outside lawyers, now they respect the decision of the Navajo court and because they decide those issues to the satisfaction of both parties.”

Manley Begay:

“One more question.”

Audience member:

“What do you see like the, for the Navajo Nation to become like economically and financially stable and zero reliance on the government, what do you see as the biggest obstacle for Navajo Nation to get there? Is it like a mindset or is it...what do you see that...what’s preventing us from getting there, I guess?”

Peterson Zah:

“Economic development is very, very [expensive]. Any kind of economic development is expensive and it’s also hard to get into that area because how the people are holding onto the land. Young people just like you, when you drive across the reservation, you’re driving, ‘Next service station 45 miles,’ and you look at your gauge, ‘Oh, my god, I’m going to run out,’ and so you have that situation now. And the reason why that is persistent is the people who have grazing rights to the land that comes up to the highway, they don’t want gas station. Somebody was telling me seven percent of the Navajo population holds grazing permit, seven percent holds the whole Navajo Nation in abeyance for the lack of economic development. They’re hostage, holding the Navajo people hostage. And that’s a major, major problem, the land issue and I think we need to correct that in some ways. I don’t really know what the answer is, but somewhere in between just getting the reservation open and then having some concept of ownership of lands in some degree and then having the land use right or land use...yeah, land use, write program at each chapter. If you belong to a chapter, you should be able to say, ‘Hey, we have this chapter house here. We should have schools here, schools for our children. We should have housing here for us to live in. We should have business development right here, service station. We should have...that’s what we should really be doing.’ But the chapters are fighting themselves because those are the grazing permittees land, grazing right land and the first thing they say is, ‘No.’ You’ve got to have a different concept.

I like my dad, my dad who used to be at Low Mountain Chapter and this is kind of funny. My dad had a good sense of humor. He was trained as a Navajo Nation Code Talker and one day he went home, we were with him and he says, ‘I came home because I want to be with you guys and I’ve got two weeks off because after I get back to San Diego, we’re sailing to Japan. We’re ready to go to battle,’ he said. ‘And I won’t be seeing you guys for a long time.’ [Navajo language]. So he went back. Two weeks later he was back and I said, ‘Hey, what happened? I thought you were going to be gone for a year.’ And he says, ‘No, don’t you know that the war is over in Japan?’ he says. ‘The Japanese people found out I was coming so they surrendered.’ He always had a real good sense of humor, the stories about him that I’m going to tell you.

Well, he belonged to that chapter and he was a chapter officer at one time at Low Mountain and Low Mountain had no chapter, Low Mountain had no houses, Low Mountain had no roads. We had nothing. And when people in the community would say, ‘We’ve got to have a place to build our chapter house,’ all these land permittees said, ‘No. [Navajo language]. No. No. No. Keep it out of there.’ [Navajo language]. Well, my dad had a grazing permit and so he says to these people that were planning a chapter house, he said, ‘You could come over to our land where we have a permit, grazing permit,’ and he says, ‘I’ll give you that land free,’ he says. ‘And when we have a chapter house, then I want to have a road that also goes through my land, highway all the way to the other highway, connected, all on my land,’ he says. And he told the chapter people, ‘When it snows and rains, we all end up in the mud. So when that day comes, I want only my family to use that road,’ he said. ‘All you other guys, you get your truck in the mud and you stay there,’ he said. He says, ‘That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you’re doing. That’s what you’re asking for.’ So they built a chapter house on his land where he’s holding the grazing permit and they put a road through where it was his grazing right land. And sometimes you have to say that to people. Some of those people didn’t think it was funny, but he thought it was funny that people were doing that. And so that’s how those things got...we need more people that are willing and in the best interest of the community, in the best interest of nation building, who think that way. He said, ‘I’m not sacrificing a land, that’s a poor use of word, sacrificing. I’m not sacrificing.’ And then the committee member says, ‘Well, the Navajo Nation has an account for anybody who gives up the land to pay for the use of that land.’ He didn’t want any money. He says, ‘You know, the real Navajo story is, you don’t sell your mother. You don’t sell your mother for money because that land is part of the Mother Earth. It’s for people’s use. It’s for [Navajo language],’ he says. ‘And I’m not going to get paid and I’m not going to demand money to sell my mother to somebody. Use it.’ He says, ‘I’m getting old anyway.’ And so we need more people who think that way, who are dedicated 100 percent to the community and to their people.” 

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