Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A World War II-era Marine who trained as a Navajo Code Talker, New Mexico state Sen. John Pinto was the longest-serving member of the state Senate and one of the longest-serving Native American legislators in U.S. history.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the Navajo lawmaker’s “towering legacy” and called him a “New Mexico icon and an American hero.”
Pinto died early Friday in Gallup. He was 94.
Pinto was a beloved figure in the Senate – where he had served since 1977 – and his death prompted an outpouring of testimonials from current and former state officials and fellow lawmakers.
“I will miss his good humor, as will everyone at the Capitol, and I offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones, his family and friends,” the governor said in a statement.
Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, whose district was adjacent to Pinto’s, described him as a tireless advocate for Native Americans and northwestern New Mexico.
“I admire him for the time he served, what he did for the Navajo people and how he had to fight for everything he obtained,” Muñoz told the Journal.
Pinto was born on the Navajo Nation in 1924 to a family of sheepherders and did not start school until being sent to Fort Defiance boarding school at age 12. Eventually, Pinto joined the Marine Corps as a Navajo Code Talker, whose mission was to translate American coordinates and messages into a code based on the Navajo language.
Although World War II ended before Pinto was deployed, he received a Congressional Silver Medal in 2001 for his service as a Code Talker.
As a legislator, Pinto, a Democrat, was instrumental in establishing a state Department of Indian Affairs and setting up a tribal infrastructure fund to help pay for road improvements and other projects on Native American land.
He was also known for singing the “Potato Song” on the Senate floor during each legislative session. In Navajo, the song tells the story of a potato, planted in the spring and visited through the summer until it is ready to be harvested.
Lujan Grisham said Pinto represented his constituents with grace, wisdom and tenacity.
“Through the relationships he built and respect he earned, he was able to secure innumerable crucial investments for New Mexico communities, in particular Native communities,” she said.
Recent health problems
Pinto had battled health problems in recent years, but he was present for roughly 90% of the votes taken in the Senate during this year’s 60-day legislative session, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Viante New Mexico.
He had also received an honorary doctoral degree on May 17 from the Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint.
On Friday, Pinto was pronounced dead at the Gallup Indian Medical Center, where he had been taken after Gallup police officers were dispatched to his house because Pinto was not breathing. Family members were at his side throughout the ordeal, according to the Gallup Police Department.
“He worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime to serve the Diné people,” the Pinto family said in a statement. “The family would like to express their gratitude to his constituents and fellow legislators for allowing him to serve, it is what truly made him happy.”
A former educator in the Gallup-McKinley school system, Pinto said in a 2007 interview that he got into politics because he saw the need for services for people, especially on the sprawling Navajo Nation.
After first winning election in 1976, Pinto went on to win reelection 10 times to the Senate District 3 seat that encompasses parts of McKinley and San Juan counties in New Mexico’s northwest corner.
His current four-year term was scheduled to expire at the end of 2020, and Lujan Grisham will pick a successor in the coming weeks from a list of names submitted by county commissioners in those two counties.
‘A great Diné warrior’
Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, said the 42-member chamber mourns for both Pinto’s family and the state’s Native American community.
“There will forever be a void on the Senate floor without John Pinto, but his presence will be felt here forever,” Papen said. “He taught all of us how to lead with humility, tenacity and heart.”
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also praised Pinto, saying the longtime legislator dedicated his life to helping others.
“Words cannot express the sadness we feel for the loss of a great Diné warrior who served our country as a Navajo Code Talker and in the New Mexico state Senate for many years,” Nez said.
Meanwhile, several lawmakers also cited the story of Pinto hitchhiking from Gallup to Santa Fe during a snowstorm in 1977 to serve his first term in the Senate. As the story goes, Pinto was picked up in Albuquerque by another state senator, much to both lawmakers’ surprise.
“My philosophy is to be happy, to meet people, to love people, all the races, because they all need help,” Pinto said in the 2007 interview with the Journal. “They all need good water to drink, good food to eat, a good warm place to stay, and they need good jobs – that’s the basic needs.”