Pinto served in World War II as one of roughly 420 men of the Navajo nation who were Code Talkers

Sen. John Pinto
Credit: Juan Antonio Labreche/AP/REX/Shutterstock

John Pinto, the Navajo Code Talker who served during World War II and went on to become one of the longest-serving elected officials of Native American ancestry in the country, died on Friday, May 24 at the age of 94.

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran had served as a senator in New Mexico since 1977, holding the position longer than anyone in the state’s history, according to CNN.

Before his time in politics, Pinto helped play a key part in the Allies’ military strategy in World War II while a part of the Code Talkers, a group of Native Americans who used the Navajo language to evade Japanese code breakers over radio communication. The group was able to relay matters from coordinates to troop movements and was crucial to American victories throughout the war.

Pinto — born on December 15, 1924 in Lupton, Arizona — was one of around 420 men of the Navajo nation who served as Code Talkers during the war.

After his time in the military, Pinto became a teacher, earning a bachelor’s in Elementary Education at 39, and dedicated his life to public service.

“He worked tirelessly throughout his lifetime to serve the Diné people,” his family said in a statement, according to CNN. “Diné” is the indigenous term for Navajo.

“The family would like to express their gratitude to his constituents and fellow legislators for allowing him to serve, it is what truly made him happy,” they continued.

Sen. John Pinto
John Pinto
| Credit: Morgan Lee/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez added, “The Navajo Nation is deeply saddened by the loss of N.M. Sen. John Pinto – a public servant, Navajo Code Talker, and loving family man. He touched the lives of many and brought smiles and laughter to us all. May we all take comfort in knowing that he is with our Creator now.”

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called Pinto an “American hero” in a post to social media shortly after his death.

“Through relationships he built & respect he earned, he was able to secure innumerable crucial investments for New Mexicans, in particular Native communities,” she wrote. “His record of service is unblemished, & his unwavering commitment to his people will forever serve as a shining example.”

Sen. John Pinto
Pinto’s burial
| Credit: Morgan Lee/AP/REX/Shutterstock

“Senator John Pinto was a New Mexico icon and an American hero,” Grisham continued. “I will miss his good humor, as will everyone at the Capitol, and I offer my deepest condolences to his loved ones, his family and friends.”

Just before his death, Pinto received an honorary degree from Navajo Technical University.

Pinto was laid to rest on Thursday in Gallup, New Mexico.

“He taught us to never give up,” his granddaughter, Kellie Lynn Arviso, said during the service, according to the Farmington Daily Times.

On the same day of Pinto’s funeral, another Code Talker, 94-year-old Louis Levi Oakes, died. He was the last remaining Code Talker from the Akwesasne Mohawk territory.