Bill seeks naming highway after Navajo leader

Measure would require approval of Navajo committee and state transportation commission

Noel Lyn Smith
This stretch of U.S. Highway 491 south of Shiprock is included in a part of the roadway that could be designated in honor of Navajo leader Chief Manuelito.
  • The highway runs through Shiprock, Newcomb, Sheep Springs, Naschitti, Tohatchi and Twin Lakes.
  • Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie is sponsoring the legislation.
  • The committee handling the bill is scheduled to meet on Thursday.

FARMINGTON — A member of the Navajo Nation Council is seeking support to designate a portion of U.S. Highway 491 in honor of the prominent Navajo leader Chief Manuelito.

The bill proposes that the highway, which stretches approximately 194 miles between Monticello, Utah, and Gallup, be named Chief Manuelito Atiin. Atiin is the Navajo word for highway.

On the Navajo Nation, it travels through the communities of Shiprock, Newcomb, Sheep Springs, Naschitti, Tohatchi and Twin Lakes.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the designation is suitable because Manuelito hailed from the area where the highway is located, and his connection goes into southeast Utah because he was born in the Bears Ears area.

He said the designation would only apply for the portion of the highway that runs in New Mexico, and he has been working with a member of the state transportation commission to implement the change.

"Pretty much this road is on the Navajo Nation. I thought it was only fitting that we use Chief Manuelito, to honor him. To have his name be there so that Navajo people feel the pride," Tsosie said.

The bill states Manuelito was a chief before and after the Long Walk to Fort Sumner and was among the leaders who negotiated for the Navajo people to return to their homeland. Manuelito is also regarded for valuing education, and the tribe has implemented a scholarship program named in his honor, according to the bill.

"He saw a path forward for the Navajo people," Tsosie said.

The bill was assigned to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee, where final authority rests.

Jared Touchin, spokesman for the Office of the Speaker, said the bill will be listed on the proposed agenda when the committee meets on Thursday.

Emilee Cantrell, spokesperson with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said the state transportation commission names roads. In the commission's policy for designations and dedications, the commission considers written requests for such action when it is intended as a memorial to an event, person, person of historical significance, or to honor a person of national respect.

U.S. Highway 491 stretches approximately 194 miles between Monticello, Utah, and Gallup.

The policy also states commissioners can consider requests submitted by local government entities to designate buildings, bridges, interchanges, highways, transportation facilities or other structures.

Olin Kieyoomia is a seventh-generation grandson of Manuelito.

"I think the name Manuelito should be spread to educate the people who use (highway) 491," Kieyoomia said adding the highway is visible from his residence in Tohatchi.

He said Manuelito is known in the community because one of his wives, Asdáá Tl'ógi, also known as Juanita, was from Tohatchi, and clan relations to the leader are within the community and in the areas of Coyote Canyon and Mexican Springs.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

About Manuelito

Manuelito was born into the Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms People) clan in 1818 near Bears Ears in Utah.

He was known to have participated in battles against the Mexicans and resisted the occupation of American settlers.

In 1866, Manuelito surrendered and was interred at Bosque Redondo, an interment camp near Fort Sumner.

Manuelito was among the Navajo leaders who sign the last treaty between the tribe and the United States on June 1, 1868.

After returning to his homeland, Manuelito was sought out by government officials to make trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with presidents and address issues facing the Navajo people.

He died in 1894 from alcoholism and pneumonia.

Source: "Reclaiming Diné History: The Legacies of Navajo Chief Manuelito and Juanita" by Jennifer Nez Denetdale