All the things John Pinto has been in his 91 years, he still is: Navajo Code Talker, Marine, statesman, lawmaker, husband, father, grandfather and tireless advocate. John Pinto not only has stories, he is a great American story.
The legendary New Mexico legislator and his wife, Joann, were in Vail for a few days as part of the Council of State Governments West, joining state lawmakers from 13 Western states. Pinto has solved more problems than most of the rest of us knew existed.
Speaking of problems, did we mention that he and the rest of the Navajo Code Talkers helped save the world?
“They tried to do away with the Navajo language. When kids used it in school, they’d get their mouths washed out with soap. Now look what happened. It saved the world,” Joann said.
Code Talker and Marine
Pinto grew up poor and spent much of his youth scavenging for surplus food anywhere he could find it. He was herding sheep for his grandparents and walked an insane number of miles to get to school.
When the other kids went home, Pinto stayed behind, not knowing he’d be the only one in the building. It was scary, of course, but a Navajo minister took him under his wing, gave him some chores to do and food to eat.
In the early 1940s there was a war going on, and one day a Marine bus pulled up outside his boarding school in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and took the boys to basic training.
One boy kept taunting Pinto that he’d never become a Marine because he was too small and too skinny. However, he was so small that he could climb under the barbed wire faster than anyone else, and always reached the foxhole first.
“He failed. I passed,” John said smiling.
He had a little trouble with marksmanship at 200 yards, missing the whole target. At 300 yards he hit the target and at 400 yards he nailed the bullseye twice.
It wasn’t until he was sworn in as a Marine that he told them he was a Navajo.
When he was getting off the bus, a Marine officer looked at him and said, “C’mon, little chief,” and his Code Talker training began.
Eventually they sent him to the University of Northern Arizona to study the Navajo language. He got straight As.
“Imagine an Anglo trying to learn this language,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.
Navajo worked so well because it’s unlike any other Native American language. Also, no one else knew it either. Fewer than a dozen anthropologists had ever studied that part of Navajo culture. Even German scholars who visited Indian communities in the 1930s, including the Nazi propagandist Dr. Colin Ross, ignored the Navajo language.
Joann explains that the Navajo word for hand grenade is potato. The word for submarine is armed fish, and airplane is a bird, but the enemy didn’t have any way of knowing that, John said, and that’s what made it work.
“They couldn’t decipher the Navajo language,” he said.
There were 29 original Code Talkers. Pinto was in the second group. Most have passed away by now, he said.
He’s writing a book and trying to raise money to open a Code Talker museum.
Pinto was first elected to the New Mexico state Senate in 1976 and is working on his 10th four-year term. His district around Gallup is home to Anglos, Navajo, Hispanics and African-Americans.
“My voters love me. I feel that way,” he said.
Back in 1977, Albuquerque State Sen. Manny Aragon was on his way to the opening session of the New Mexico Legislature in a terrible January snowstorm when he spotted a middle-aged Navajo man standing in downtown Albuquerque with a blanket over his head and his thumb out.
Aragon pulled over in his old Cadillac and gave the guy a ride.
“I just thought he was a transient,” Aragon said.
As they drove north, Aragon asked his passenger where he was headed. The hitchhiker said he had taken a bus from Gallup to Albuquerque and was now traveling on to Santa Fe.
“Oh, yeah?” Aragon said. “What are you going to do there?”
“I’m a state senator,” the hitchhiker replied. “So am I,” Aragon said.
Right now, the 91-year-old statesman is running again, he said, as long as his health holds up.
“I’ve never wanted to quit. People love me. I go places, meet people and learn things. They call me the Traveling Senator,” he said smiling.
Washington, D.C., is a regular destination. He got a sore back flying over the ocean at night, looking for the lights of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Canada.
He has lived in Gallup most of his life. When he was in high school, he bought a city lot in Gallup, 75-feet-by-100-feet, for $100. He paid $10 a month and eventually built a tiny house on it.
“Joann helped,” he said smiling.
They brought home $35 every two weeks and raised four kids in that house on that salary. John and Joann still live there. They’re upgrading the house. Their son is an award-winning builder, and he’s helping, Joann said.
He has been sued by those who say he’s not eligible to run for office. One said he had never paid taxes, which isn’t true, he said. Among other taxes, he paid property taxes on their Gallup home. Another lawsuit was filed by another Navajo. He beat that one, too.
“I hired a good attorney and he won for me,” John said.
Lives in progress
Pinto was born Dec. 15, 1924, into a family of sheepherders on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and was raised in Gallup. He earned a master’s degree at University of New Mexico and became a school teacher.
You get three shots at the University of New Mexico’s English tests. He failed twice, but a professor took him under her wing and drilled grammar and punctuation. He learned it and on his third try he passed and went on to earn his college degree to be a teacher.
“I thought I had failed again, and I almost cried,” he said. “I walked back over to her and she told me I had passed. She was the first one to know.”
“I’m thankful that my parents gave me a good brain,” he said.
That brain, he said, was sharp enough to spot Joann.
Joann was born in Tohatchi, New Mexico. They met when he was her driver with the welfare agency.
“We have been very nice to each other. No problems,” he said.
He left the Marines after the war and knocked around Southern California a few years with his parents. It was a tough time for him.
“After the war we were very poor,” he said. “I’d walk to the Salvation Army to ask them to help my family buy food.”
He came back to New Mexico in 1950. One Friday he took his grandmother to the welfare office, and the director asked him, “Do you know how to drive?”
“Yes!” he lied spectacularly.
“Come to work Monday,” she told him.
He had never owned a vehicle and couldn’t drive. Despite that, he came to work that Monday.
They climbed into a Jeep and she hollered, “Let’s go!”
That’s when he confessed that he had never driven.
“She didn’t get upset. She just showed me how to put it in gear,” he said.
They made it to their destination and back, and he had a job as a driver and interpreter. Banging around in the Jeep left him with a bad back, so he went to work at the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an interpreter. He earned $2,800 a year.
His boss told him that if he didn’t go to college, he’d never make more than that.
He enrolled at the University of New Mexico, earned his teaching degree and eventually a master’s.
“He was right. I went from $2,800 to $38,000,” John said.
He’s still a teacher. These days, he teaches the Navajo language to his children and grandchildren.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and [email protected]