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John Pinto Has Been a State Senator for 30 Years— and He Keeps Doing It Out of Love

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    SANTA FE— Back in 1977, Manny Aragon was on his way to the opening session of the New Mexico Legislature in a terrible January snowstorm when he spotted a middle-aged Navajo man standing in Downtown Albuquerque with a blanket over his head and his thumb out.
    Aragon pulled over in his old Cadillac and gave the guy a ride.
    "I just thought he was a transient," Aragon said.
    As they drove north, Aragon asked his passenger where he was headed. The hitchhiker said he had taken a bus from Gallup to Albuquerque and was now traveling on to Santa Fe.
    "Oh, yeah?" Aragon said. "What are you going to do there?"
    "I'm a state senator," the hitchhiker replied.
    "So am I," Aragon said.
    That lucky rider was John Pinto, and he has now been in the New Mexico Senate for 30 years.
    He will be honored for his years of service at a dinner on Wednesday at La Fonda in Santa Fe, sponsored by Gov. Bill Richardson and Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.
    "He has done so much for the Navajo people," said Michelle Brown-Yazzie, the former deputy secretary of Indian Affairs for New Mexico, who, along with Tiller Research president Veronica Tiller, is organizing the dinner. "And he's determined to keep going."
    Aragon, who rose to the Senate's top ranks before resigning in 2004, laughs when he tells the story. "I think," he said, "we were equally surprised."
    Pinto was one of the first Native Americans to serve in the state Legislature, and he has spent a career securing state money for improvements in his western district and campaigning for the inclusion of Indian people into government.
    "He's still very influential and his colleagues really respect him and get his bills moving along," said Sen. Lynda Lovejoy, another Democrat from the Navajo Nation.
    He has also kept the mood light— with a quarter-moon smile and frequent silly jokes, most often humbly aimed at himself.
    How old is the senior senator from Tohatchi?
    "It's confidential, can't say. Just put 'too old,' '' Pinto says, and his whole body shakes with a laugh.
Not an easy life
    For the record, Pinto is 82, born on the Navajo reservation in 1924 to a family of sheep herders. He was a World War II-era Marine trained as a Navajo Code Talker, a University of New Mexico graduate with a master's degree in education and a McKinley County commissioner for two terms before he set his sights on the Roundhouse.
    But that is a thumbnail version of his life that comes nowhere close to describing what a journey it has been from a sheep camp at Lupton, Ariz., to his office on the third floor of the New Mexico Capitol.
    "To the beginning of my life," Pinto said. "It's going to be a long story."
    Pinto was raised by relatives in Lupton until he was 12, and then his parents took him home to Gallup.
    They went piñon gathering near Quemado and got surprised by a snowstorm.
    "The truck couldn't move so we stayed there all winter," Pinto said. "We had nothing to eat. We were freezing, too."
    They built a little shack out of wood and Pinto tracked rabbits in the snow and killed them with a sharpened stick and his mother roasted them over a fire. He chased porcupines up trees and knocked them to the ground, where his father clubbed them to death.
    "I had a tough life," Pinto said. "My parents didn't have any education and didn't have a job, but gave me a good upbringing— that's why I'm here."
    Pinto didn't start school until the Bureau of Indian Affairs picked him up and sent him to a Fort Defiance boarding school.
    "At the age of 12 I was in kindergarten," Pinto said. "I guess I did all right."
Uncle Sam calls
    His education was interrupted by World War II, and he joined a legion of young Navajos who were trained as Marine radio men, their mission to translate American coordinates and messages into a code based on the Navajo language.
    The war ended before Pinto shipped out and he returned to Gallup, where he worked first as a dishwasher at a local restaurant and then driving a jeep for the tribe's welfare department. The social worker he drove to remote communities was Joann Dennison from Tohatchi, whom he later married.
    On the advice of a BIA worker, Pinto moved to Albuquerque and enrolled at UNM. He passed his English language test on the fourth try and was admitted into the School of Education.
    Pinto is sentimental, and he tears up when he remembers getting the green light to enter college.
    "That was the happiest moment of my life, I think."
    When he graduated in 1963, he was 39. He went on to earn a master's degree in elementary education and spent his career in the Gallup-McKinley County school system.
    Pinto got into politics because he saw a need for services for people, especially on the Navajo reservation.
    In the state Senate, he's always been a leader in the number of bills introduced and capital outlay received. His skill at finding support for his projects has brought in money for buildings, roads and power and water lines in his district, which is largely Navajo and spans McKinley and San Juan counties.
    Pinto said he works for the money because it's needed.
    "We need money for the senior citizens, need money for the road improvements, need money to extend power lines; we need money for water development; we need money for health— all kinds of things that we need," Pinto said. "My philosophy is to be happy, to meet people, to love people, all the races, because they all need help. 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."
Prolific politician
    He has been elected to the New Mexico Senate eight times and been instrumental in establishing a state Department of Indian Affairs and setting up a tribal infrastructure fund, which has put an additional $8 million toward reservation projects since its inception in 2005.
    Getting funds to turn deadly U.S. 666 into a four-lane highway and to change its name to U.S. 491 are among his proudest achievements.
    Barely 5 feet tall, soft-spoken and hard of hearing, Pinto can be overlooked as a power broker, but he gets things done.
    When she began working with the Legislature as deputy Indian Affairs secretary, Brown-Yazzie said she was impressed by Pinto's skills, especially as he maneuvered the tribal infrastructure fund bill onto the floor for a vote in the last 15 minutes of the session.
    "I saw him so on task with what was happening and I was kind of surprised— I hate to say this— because of his age. People who underestimate him, that's a mistake."
    Pinto is known for singing the "Potato Song" at least once on the Senate floor or in the Rotunda 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.
    Pinto loves to sing. He sings Navajo religious songs at yeibeichei and Enemy Way ceremonies and at traditional puberty ceremonies.
    He also likes to rides horses and still rides in the annual Navajo Nation and Northern Navajo Tribal fairs.
    "It's a great feeling being a senator," Pinto said. "I enjoy meeting people. I still love it. Every day. I love my people."
    Pinto no longer hitchhikes to the Legislature. He has a truck— a Nissan— and drives himself.
    A little embarrassed by the attention of a dinner in his honor, Pinto said he has a simple philosophy: "We should all work together as brothers and sisters for the betterment of New Mexico. That's the way I feel."
    He chuckled and added, "You can put it down— says the greatest Navajo."