“Fighting for Democracy”: Carl Gorman

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s featured fall exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.

“I learned so early how terrible and cruel prejudice can be.”

Carl Gorman was born in 1907 on the Navajo Reservation in Chinle, Arizona, where he lived and learned and played until he was sent to the Rehoboth Missionary School at the age of 10. There he was beaten and locked in a basement for speaking his native language, a language he would later use during World War II as a Navajo Code talker to save hundreds of American lives.

Carl Gorman (Photo courtesy of Japanese American National Museum)

Unable to bear any more beatings from the “board of education,” the clever name his teachers gave the stick they used to punish the boys, Carl and his younger brother, Wallace, ran away from the school and walked for three days back to their home on the reservation.

“My teachers didn’t care about me,” he said. “They wanted to make white people out of us. I learned so early how terrible and cruel prejudice can be.” Carl could see what the government schools were trying to accomplish and he vowed never to forget his native language, his culture, or its rich traditions.

Carl was soon sent to another school, meant to discourage native ways of life. At the Albuquerque Indian School, Carl played football. Instead of a diploma at graduation, he received a certificate proclaiming that he was an “adequate farmer.”

As he grew into an adult, he found himself in the position of translating between his people and the English-speaking American government. Trying to explain the needs of his people to the government and the needs and demands of the government to his people was a thankless and endlessly frustrating role. Watching the government’s promises to his people go unfilled created in him a deep anger and sense of loss. When he found himself among a group of Indians fired from their jobs near Navajo Mountain, while all of the white men kept theirs, it left him with a sense of total failure.

The reason for the cutbacks, as explained to the men, was the war. Carl, along with many of the other Native American men who now found themselves jobless and broke, decided to enlist. At 35, Carl had to lie about his age, but he was accepted. At the time, the Marines were looking to recruit Navajo soldiers for a special duty. Carl signed up with the Marine recruiting team, having no idea what the mission would entail.

Trying to explain the needs of his people to the government and the government to his people was a thankless and endlessly frustrating task.

These original Navajo recruits, 29 in all, ranging from boys to men, were trained as Marines and then tasked with creating a Code based on their native Navajo language that would be used to keep military strategies and positions from the Japanese, who up until that point had been able to break every code used by the U.S. Military forces. The Navajo Code Talkers would create 17 pages of code so complex that it would never be broken by the enemy. As the war raged on, the Navajo Code and the Code Talkers grew more complex and powerful. Navajo Code Talkers memorized every bit of code; it was part of their history, they did not need to depend on writing the code down. The Navajo Code Talkers were in fact integral to Allied success at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

Carl Gorman proved himself a leader among that original group of 29 Navajo Code Talkers. Together they used their language and their culture, things that the government had tried to beat out of them as children, to achieve greatness. All because they refused to forget.

To learn more about Carl Gorman, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We The People’? on view now at the National Constitution Center.

Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.

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