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Navajo Nation eyes renaming US highway after late senator, a World War II Code Talker

FARMINGTON, N.M. — Some Navajo Nation officials want New Mexico to rename a U.S. highway after one of the longest-serving Native American lawmakers in U.S. history.

A Navajo Nation legislative committee is requesting that New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham name U.S. 491 in honor of the late state Sen. John Pinto, the Farmington Daily Times reports.

Pinto, who died in May at 94, had long sought to turn the deadly U.S. 666 into a four-lane highway and to change its name to U.S. 491.

In this Feb. 2, 2018, file photo Democratic New Mexico state Sen. John Pinto talks about his career as a lawmaker on American Indian Day in the Legislature on in Santa Fe, N.M. (Morgan Lee/AP)
WWII Code Talker and longtime NM lawmaker dies at 94

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.

The road was nicknamed the "Devil's Highway" because of the significance the number 666 has for many Christian evangelicals and because of the number of people killed in traffic crashes. The highway is featured in the movies "Natural Born Killers" and "Repo Man."

The highway was named one of the 20 most dangerous in the country in 1997.

Pinto was among the state legislators and Navajo leaders who lobbied for the name change. Now, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mark Freeland is sponsoring a bill to honor Pinto and memorialize his legacy by adding Pinto's name to signage.

"It'll be an ultimate tribute to him," he said. "I hope the state gives it some consideration."

U.S. 491 stretches about 195 miles (310 kilometers) from Gallup, New Mexico, through Colorado to Monticello, Utah.

Pinto was a Navajo Code Talker during World War II and served over four decades in the state Legislature. The tribe celebrated the hundreds of Navajos who served as radiomen in the war during an annual event Wednesday that included a parade, speech and a gourd dance.

Lujan Grisham's office stopped short of endorsing the proposal for the highway last week but signaled the governor would be open to the discussion.

"The governor certainly recognizes the need to appropriately honor a singular public servant and statesman like Sen. Pinto and will always be open to exploring ways to do that," spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.

Any renaming of the highway would involve a formal request and a formal proposal written up by the department, said Marisa Maez, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Transportation. It would be then have to be presented to a state commission and approved by the Navajo Nation Council.

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