Sen. John Pinto, a Navajo Code Talker, dies at 94

Updated: Sen. Pinto served in the New Mexico senate for four decades

Sen. John Pinto fought wars each day. He once served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Navajo Code Talker. Then he fought legislative wars for more than 40 years.

Mellor Willie remembers one war story from working with Pinto.

Willie, who was working on a campaign, received a call from the senator in 2005, “Mr. Willie, I need you to come work.” He jumped on board.

As a majority analyst for the state senate and the main analyst for Sen. Pinto, Willie spent a lot of time with the senator to organization his work of Indian Cultural Affairs Committee. Pinto was chair of the committee at the time.

“I got to know him very well and to understand his leadership style,” Willie wrote on social media. “He was stealthy and smart — he flew under the radar because he wasn’t flashy like some of the other politicians but he ALWAYS got his priorities and work done.”

It was the last hour of the legislative session when Willie was informed that the tribal infrastructure fund bill never made it to the senate floor. The bill would give grants and loans to New Mexico tribes for infrastructure proposals for their communities. It included roads, power lines, wastewater and more.

Minutes before the end of the session, Willie told Sen. Pinto that a bill needed to be considered. Pinto said to grab the majority leader, Sen. Michael Sanchez.

Pinto told Sanchez the bill needed to pass the floor so Sanchez gathered the staff and immediately brought the bill to the floor.

“It was the last vote, minutes before the session was over—Senator Pinto did it!! He passed the Tribal Infrastructure Fund Bill,” Willie said. “No one else in the legislature could have passed a bill mere minutes before the legislative session ended.”

“Today, tribes still benefit from the tribal Infrastructure Funds ... it was all because of Senator Pinto,” he said. “This is one war story, but it underscored Pinto’s influence and his respect—his colleagues had the utmost respect for him. He was my hero.”

Sen. Pinto’s work did not slow down. In this session he was listed as the sponsor of seven pieces of legislation, ranging from a Code Talker’s Museum and Veterans Center to a bill focused on reducing violence against children.

Everywhere on social media, people shared their memories of the senator.

Arizona Republic reporter Shondiin Silversmith said her father remembers Pinto fondly.

“He was a lot of things to me. A mentor, a leader, but most of all, he was my friend,” he said. “He was a great man.”

Many Navajo people on social media said he was like their cheii, or grandpa.

New Mexico State Senator John Pinto and New Mexico Indian Affairs Secretary Trujillo
Sen. John Pinto awarded an honorary doctorate by Navajo Technical University.(Photo: New Mexico Indian Affairs Department)

Just last week Sen. Pinto was awarded an honorary doctorate by Navajo Technical University. It was the university’s first ever honorary degree. “Senator Pinto is very deserving and very accomplished in his service to not only the Navajo people but to other tribal groups in New Mexico,” said the university’s dean, Dr. Tim Begaye.

Colleagues expressed great memories of him for his service.

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, said she had been “fortunate to have spent time with Senator John Pinto. From organizing in Indian Country to a visit to the Round House as a Congresswoman, it was always clear Senator Pinto was a fierce advocate for the best interests of New Mexico. The recent photos of him earning his honorary degree from Navajo Technical University made me smile for days, because he was so deserving. He was an incredible ally in our fight to address missing and murdered indigenous women.”

Haaland said, “He is with his beloved wife now - who never left his side. The sadness of Senator Pinto’s passing will reverberate with New Mexicans statewide, as his advocacy and love for our state was never ending. His loss to us will be remembered in many ways. My deep condolences to his family and to the Navajo Nation.”

(More: New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, Native American Legislative Caucus and All Pueblo Council of Governors leadership issue statements on the passing of Senator John Pinto)

New Mexican Sen. Michael Padilla announced Friday.

“It is with extreme sadness that I report that Sen John Pinto passed today. Sen. Pinto was our longest serving NM state senator, a code talker, a fighter for a strong public education system, a champion for issues related to the Navajo people, and a good friend.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter - @jourdanbb. Email -jbennett-begaye@indiancountrytoday.com.

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