‘NM icon and Amer­i­can hero’

Pinto, 94, served in Se­nate 42-plus years with hu­mil­ity, hu­mor and heart


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 GallupMcKi­n­ley 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.

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.”


Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, pic­tured here in 2018, died at his home on Fri­day.


Sen. John Pinto, D-Gallup, is hon­ored on the Se­nate floor in the Round­house in Santa Fe in 2018.


Stu­dents from Grie­gos Ele­men­tary School in Al­bu­querque and par­ent su­per­vi­sor Pat Rogers speak to state Sen. John Pinto about his ex­pe­ri­ences as a Navajo Code Talker in 2000.


Sen. John Pinto, pho­tographed here in 1982, was the long­est-serv­ing mem­ber of the state Se­nate.

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