Carl Gorman: Artist & Navajo Statesman
Early in life Carl Gorman did well as a bootlegger on the Reservation. Then he was one of the few native traders. His father Nelson Gorman had a post near Chinle. Carl’s language skills were obvious—during the infamous stock reduction, he was used as a Navajo translator for the government—and he was one of the first Code Talkers taken. Born in 1907, he was older than most of the guys—he lied about his age to enlist—but he was needed to craft the original code. I barely knew what a Code Talker was.
In the summer of 1971 I was working for the Duke Oral History Project under C. Gregory Crampton at the University of Utah. I got a call from him saying, “Get your behind over to the Navajo Museum and take your tape recorder and plenty of blank tape.” Over a three day period I taped a bunch of these amazing men. The only person I know who got multiple tapes was Carl Gorman. After that I crossed paths with this amazing man rather often and I believe I can call him a friend.
One of Carl’s stories that upset a lot of White folks was about his treatment while attending primary school. For a personality like Gorman’s it was inevitable he would get in trouble. He finished his education at the Albuquerque Indian School, and the policies there were not too different that what he had seen already. Until 1970 the official BIA stand was to make little Christian White Men out of the kids. Carl’s diploma said he was “A competent farmer.” At least he got to play football.
After the war Carl took advantage of the GI Bill to further his education on his own terms for once. He had been drawing all his life, but now he got into the Otis Art Institute. During that time he matured, both as an artist and as a genuine character. At that time Art became his fortune. For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.
He started a Navaho Club in Southern California, but he realized he could reach more of his people back on the Reservation. In 1964, not long before I met him the first time, he became director of the Navajo Arts & Crafts Guild.
In the late Sixties things started to change for Indian tribes as they got more autonomy from the government and project money like the Office of Navajo Education Opportunity. He had two projects during this time that were of great importance. He created a travelling exhibit of traditional Navajo history with several original paintings. He organized an effort to tape record as many Hatathli—medicine men—as possible before all their knowledge passed into the darkness.
Gorman, like many Indian artists, could work in a variety of mediums.
Acrylics, drawings, watercolors and even ceramics were on his menu. He was also a teacher. He had a gig with U C Davis for several years. It is hard to think of things Carl Gorman didn’t do. I believe it is fair to say that his greatest accomplishment was the help he gave the Navajo people. For years he signed his work with his clan name, Kin-ya-onnie-beyeh.
When Carl Gorman died in Gallup at the age of 90, the New York Times ran a generous obituary. In the first sentence the writer says: “Carl Gorman, a gentle Navajo artist who talked his way valiantly through some of the fiercest fighting of World War II…” had passed away. The writer almost certainly did not realize how appropriate his statement was. He was talking about the Navajo code that was never broken, not the silver-tongued storyteller.
I will never forget Carl Gorman the raconteur, teller of tales, Gorman the artist, the man who advanced the Navajo tribe in so many ways.