Santa Fe, NM – State Senator John Pinto, a Democrat from Gallup, is still going strong at 94 years old. His colleagues and those familiar with his work rave about his high energy level and his ability to influence the entire state legislature. He is one of the last living Navajo Code Talkers and is considered by many in the state to be a living legend.
He has served as a Democratic member of the New Mexico Senate since 1977, making him the longest-serving member in the Senate. Pinto represents the 3rd District, which includes the Four Corners area and spans much of western San Juan County, as well as a portion of western McKinley County. Much of the district is made up of the Navajo Nation; it includes the towns of Shiprock, Sheep Springs, and most if not all of Gallup.
Physically, he is small in stature, but he serves with a big heart and quick sense of humor. During this latest session of the state legislature, which ended on March 16, he was able to secure millions of dollars for the people in his district and for Native people throughout the state.
In addition to his contributions to the residents of New Mexico. Sen. Pinto is also well-known for his annual ritual of singing 'The Potato Song,' in which the senator tells the story of how he and other Navajo Code Talkers had been in training and won a contest about the best song at boot camp.
Here is the video
He acquired $1.1 million for a new Code Talkers Museum in the Tse Bonito area of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico. “One of the gas companies donated the land to the Code Talkers for nothing for their appreciation; to help us build (the museum.) That’s very nice that the New Mexico legislature thought of us, the Navajo people, for serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. I want to thank the New Mexico legislature for giving us the money to start the construction of the museum.” said Sen. Pinto, who now resides in Gallup, NM.
He is one of only eight living legendary Navajo Code Talkers. There were 400 Navajo Marines that developed a secret code using the Navajo language. “The Indians helped the United States defeat the enemy (in World War II.) The enemies never understood the Navajo language that was broadcast. A lot of the (Code Talkers) got killed in the South Pacific. But there are only eight of us left – the rest of them have passed on.”
He was responsible for getting land located south of Gallup transferred to the Navajo Nation. On the heels of that success, he was asked to run for the state senate. “I was elected to the McKinley County Commission long before I became a senator. I was trying to help the Navajo people. That’s why I ran. The people asked me. I got so many votes. After that, they learned how strong I was.”
He explained that after he was sworn in back in January of 1977 that he has won 11 straight four-year terms. “I’m undefeated. I’ve served more than 40 years,” said Sen. Pinto, who was born in Lupton, Arizona on the Navajo Nation on December 15, 1924. “I have one more year to go as a state senator. When my term is up, I’m thinking about running again. It depends on my health. The people want me to run again.”
Looking back over the last 40 years Sen. Pinto reflected on some of his memorable accomplishments, “One of the biggest accomplishments was building the four-lane highway from Gallup to Shiprock – U.S. 491. That cost about $400 million. When you build a four-lane highway it costs a million dollars a mile. The state legislature loves me here in New Mexico. I’ve got a lot of friends here.”
“I’ve got a lot of money for other projects all these years. I’ve helped all the citizens of the state of New Mexico, including the Jicarilla Apache and the Navajo people, the Mescalero Apache and all the Pueblos,” said Sen. Pinto, who is chair of the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee and also is a member of the Senate Education Committee.
In November, the state elected a new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham. New Mexicans also elected a new U.S. Representative, Democrat Debra Haaland. The former State Party Chair, Haaland, was recently honored by Sen. Pinto and the state legislature. “I love her,” he said.
He explained that she is the first Native American in the state to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Haaland and Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), Ho-Chunk Nation, became the first two Native American women to be elected to the United States Congress.
In addition to serving all these years, Sen. Pinto also owns a restaurant in Gallup.
“I sit over there and watch our people eating a lot of frybread.”
Harlan McKosato is a former host of Native America Calling and has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2005 McKosato was recognized by his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, as a “Distinguished Alumnus of the Gaylord College of Journalism.” He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communications (Radio/TV/Film) from OU in 1988. Harlan is a citizen of both the United States and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.