When he was growing up the son of sheepherders in New Mexico, John Pinto’s teachers didn’t allow him to speak his native language, Navajo, in school.
Flash forward to the outbreak of World War II when the U.S. Army discovered Navajo speakers were not only valuable, but heroic for developing an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language. Several hundred Navajo Code Talkers used the code successfully throughout the Pacific theater.
Pinto was trained as a Code Talker, drilling with backpack radio transmitters to communicate, but the war ended before he was deployed overseas.
He returned home, earned a college degree, became a teacher and, in 1976 was elected to the New Mexico legislature, eventually becoming the longest-serving senator in New Mexico history and the longest-serving Native American legislator in U.S. history. He was 94 when he died May 24 in Gallup, N.M.
Pinto made his mark on New Mexico history and worked to improve outcomes for Native Americans in the state. He helped establish the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs and worked tirelessly to ensure the state-supported road improvements and other projects on Native land by setting up a tribal infrastructure fund, the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators (NCNASL) said in a statement.
“It was an honor to serve in the legislature with an American icon and hero. NCNASL honors the remarkable contributions made by Senator Pinto. His devotion to improving outcomes for Native communities set the foundation for all of us who followed in his footsteps. He served with dedication, humility, humor and grace. I am going to miss my friend and colleague," said Senator Benny Shenedo, NCNASL chair.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham praised the Navajo lawmaker’s “towering legacy” in the Albuquerque Journal and called him a “New Mexico icon and an American hero.”
Pinto was one of six World War II veterans serving in state legislatures who were featured in a State Legislatures magazine story in 2013. Only two are still living: Wisconsin Senator Fred Risser, who is 92, and retired New York Senator William Larkin, 91.