Log In

Reset Password

The passing of a Pueblo elder: Remembering Peter Pino

He deepened the understanding of Mesa Verde’s past
Zia Pueblo elder Peter Pino always wore a customized tribal baseball cap outdoors, and he impressed National Park Service staff members and guests alike with his vast knowledge of Pueblo Indian culture and history.

When I learned that my friend Peter Pino had passed on from complications of coronavirus I was devastated.

I took a long walk at twilight remembering Peter’s quiet way of speaking and his connection to the natural world. We both made hiking sticks, and I was honored to receive one from him smoothed and hand-rubbed from an ocotillo cactus spine.

For three fall sessions, Peter and I worked together on an exclusive Mesa Verde National Park tour that brought visitors to the park from across the United States. We teamed up for this successful fundraiser for the Mesa Verde Foundation where both of us were board members.

Our guests came to tour the park during the off season to listen to Peter’s stories, to glean from his knowledge and to share his smiles and laughter. Peter, who was born at Zia Pueblo and died at the age of 71, gave to all of us from his heart and from his deep knowledge of the Pueblo past.


With a Bachelor of Arts in industrial education from New Mexico Highlands University and a Master of Business Administration from the University of New Mexico, Peter was for decades a vital part of the Zia Pueblo government, having been elected governor and serving on the Tribal Council since 1967. He also worked as tribal administrator and treasurer.

In addition to his business skills, which helped Zia Pueblo purchase additional acreage, Peter also possessed knowledge of ancient Pueblo crafts, including how to create specially shaped sticks for hunting rabbits, bone tools, digging sticks for planting crops and bows and arrows. He tanned hides, made moccasins and successfully represented the Ancestral Puebloan world to Mesa Verde visitors brimming with questions.

In a reflective mood, Zia Pueblo elder Peter Pino scans the stabilized walls at Cliff Palace. For years, Pino worked with staff members at Mesa Verde National Park to help them understand perspectives from Pueblo people whose ancestors lived at Mesa Verde for centuries.

Peter helped Mesa Verde visitors by spending long hours in consultation with Mesa Verde staff members and working on projects, including implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and interpretation of archaeological sites along Ruins Road. He assisted with planning the Visitor and Research Center to incorporate Native art and the kiva-like rotunda. Peter also had an impact at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, where he encouraged ties to living tribal communities.

“It sounds cliché to say Peter was a man of few words, but that was true. Whenever he spoke in his quiet voice, the room fell silent. His carefully chosen words had impact,” said Mesa Verde Superintendent Cliff Spencer. “That impact extended to improving the relationship between Mesa Verde and its affiliated tribes, and in the design of the visitor center. We will miss him dearly.”

One ancient dressed or hand-carved stone at the Pueblo II Far View village site at Mesa Verde National Park contains a carved spiral. Here, Peter Pino explains Pueblo philosophy about spirals and cycles of life.

“He had that way about him. With his mere presence he could get people back on track,” said Assistant Superintendent Bill Nelligan, who worked extensively with Peter. Nelligan remembers that Peter was “generous with his time. He loved sharing and telling stories. Being in his presence was like a gift. He was calming like a grandfather.”


As an elder statesman, Peter offered insight into the world of Pueblo thought. He felt a deep responsibility to respect the ancients, but he also wanted to work with living Native artists. He encouraged the park to sponsor more Native arts and crafts festivals. For the park, Peter built relationships. When first lady Hillary Clinton visited Mesa Verde, Peter was her guide. One of his favorite assignments involved the U.S. Navy.

Colorado Congressman Scott Tipton had arranged for one of a new class of Navy ships – sleek, fast, totally computerized and able to deliver U.S. Marines quickly around the world – to be named the USS Mesa Verde. U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and his wife, Linda, were to attend the dedication ceremony, and Peter had been asked to represent the park and his ancestors.

He gathered sacred water from a spring in the park and took it to the naval shipyard in Alabama where he used eagle feathers, prayers and the special spring water to bless and dedicate the ship. For Navy crew members, it was a profound and moving spiritual ceremony. Since then, various crews from the vessel have visited Mesa Verde to continue to connect the ship’s mission with the ancient Pueblo past.

Along with crew members of the USS Mesa Verde, Peter Pino (in colored vest) stands with U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and his wife, Linda, on Pino’s left and with Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer on his right.

“He was always the first to volunteer to tell the story of Ancestral Puebloan peoples from the perspective of descendant community members,” said Kristy Sholly, chief of interpretation at the park.

Peter’s voice is on an audio tape speaking in Zia to welcome visitors. He recruited his grandson to be a model for a life-size mannequin in one of the entrance displays. The dioramas intrigue visitors and place Ancestral Puebloans central in the park’s interpretation.


Visitors have clear memories of Peter’s tours.

“We look at the land with new eyes and understanding, and we will continue to cherish Peter’s stories, which he told with humility, compassion and good humor,” Ingrid Miller of Boulder said.

For Eline Patience of Hayward, California, “Peter made such an impression on me by his quiet manner with a wealth of knowledge that astounded me.”

Carolyn Baecker of Gold Canyon, Arizona, agreed: “It is a tragedy for all of us to lose treasured people like Peter Pino. He enriched our Mesa Verde tour with his wisdom and humor, and he broadened our definition of spirituality.”

On our last tour, we sat together on a sunny October afternoon at a stone amphitheater as Peter patiently demonstrated how to make Pueblo tools. We scraped, sanded and polished using stones and deer antlers that he had brought. We clustered in small groups, talking, laughing, using our hands in new ways to grasp and cling and shape.

As we closed out the tour at the Visitor and Research Center, curator Tara Travis opened drawer after drawer of ancient artifacts. We saw on cushioned metal shelves the very tools that Peter had showed us to make. It was a profound teachable moment.

Peter Pino enjoyed working with Tara Travis at Mesa Verde National Park’s Visitor and Research Center, which he helped to design. Pino especially liked discussing historic Pueblo ceramic pottery and pots similar to those he knew from his lifetime at Zia Pueblo.

Earlier in the weekend as we looked down far below us to Square Tower House, a crow landed on a nearby rock. To the astonishment of everyone, Peter and the crow began a lengthy dialogue.

“I will never forget watching him speak to a crow and the crow responding to him in a conversation only the two of them understood,” said Ginny Bostrom of Holladay, Utah.

On our last tour, Peter specifically chose Mug House as a site he wanted us to visit. We carefully picked our way down steep stone steps off Wetherill Mesa. On the far end of Mug House, as we stood in front and listened, Peter described the roof beams for the kiva and where they would have been placed on the standing stone walls. This kiva was different from all others. The cribbed roof pattern was unique. Then it dawned on us. Peter explained what we were seeing.

At Mug House in Mesa Verde National Park, Zia Pueblo elder Peter Pino explains the unique design of a kiva whose roof beams would have exactly replicated the Zia Sun symbol found on the New Mexico state flag and on New Mexico license plates. In all of his Mesa Verde tours, Pino connected the ancient past with living tribal peoples.

Sitting or standing in the kiva, looking up at the log ceiling, one would have seen the exact horizontal line pattern in the Zia sun symbol, the chosen motif for the New Mexico flag and, for years, the design on yellow and also turquoise New Mexico license plates. Here before us was a direct connection between the ancient past and the present. Peter led us to that knowledge. There were a few moments of silence as the wind whistled around the carefully dressed masonry stones. Then we bowed our heads as Peter offered a departing prayer.


Active and vigorous to the end, Peter helped Mesa Verde Foundation Board members understand our responsibility to assist in returning human remains that had been excavated by Gustaf Nordenskiold in 1891 and taken to Scandinavia before the park’s creation. The administrative and bureaucratic wheels between the U.S. and Finland turn slowly. Morally, there is no question that those sets of remains and grave goods should come back to Mesa Verde. When that occurs, Peter Pino will not be there in person for the reburial, but his spirit undoubtedly will.

Andrew Gulliford is professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at Gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu.