SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — John Pinto, a Navajo Code Talker in World War II who became one of the nation’s longest serving Native American elected officials as a New Mexico state senator, has died. He was 94.
Senate colleague Michael Padilla confirmed Pinto’s death in Gallup on Friday after years of suffering from various illnesses that rarely kept him from his duties.
After serving as a Marine, Pinto was selected to the Senate in 1976 and represented a district that included the Navajo Nation for more than four decades. The region is one of the poorest in the country.
Born in Lupton, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation to a family of sheep herders, Pinto didn’t start formal schooling until he was nearly a teenager.
“At the age of 12, I was in kindergarten,” Pinto told the Albuquerque Journal in a 2007 interview. “I guess I did all right.”
After serving as a Navajo Code Talker — a group of radio men translating American coordinates and messages into an indecipherable code based on the Navajo language — Pinto had to take an English test four times before he was finally admitted into the University of New Mexico’s College of Education. He graduated with a bachelor’s in elementary education at 39 and eventually earned his master’s.
Like many returning Native American veterans, Pinto delved into politics to address the needs of impoverished indigenous populations. The Democrat won a seat in state Senate in 1976 as one of the state’s first Native American senators.
Photo Credit: Morgan Lee/AP File