The MSU Leadership Institute invited the Bozeman community into the SUB Ballrooms this past Wednesday, Feb. 5 to listen to Zonnie Gorman tell an inspiring story set against the backdrop of World War II. Gorman is the daughter of Carl Gorman, one of the 29 original Navajo code talkers, known as the First 29, who developed a cryptic system that helped secure U.S. communications during the war. Their ingenious process was invented by intensely encrypting the Navajo language.
Gorman did not shy away from hard issues during her talk. The effects of a government-instituted assimilation designed to erase an entire culture plays a heavy role in the code talker story. Carl himself was sent to one of the missionary boarding schools specifically paid for by the U.S. to indoctrinate the Native populations.
In addition to government oppression, Gorman highlighted the racism, bigotry and apathy felt toward the First 29. A San Francisco newspaper published a condescending and insulting piece upon the code talkers’ arrival to boot camp. This piece included the horrible sentiment that the men were “magnificent specimens of original American manhood.” Gorman made sure not to dwell too much on the shameful responses of our country, but instead focused on the triumphs of the First 29. After seven weeks of boot camp, the First 29’s platoon graduated with “the highest score on the rifle range to date.” Gorman then showed us a much more respectful and honoring piece about their story published by a different newspaper.
The First 29 didn’t seem to care about the press. In fact, when the men were shown the original printed article years later by Zonnie Gorman herself, one of them joked, “We didn’t adapt well [to the military] because we’re Indian. We adapted well because we went to boarding school.” A story that drew a laugh and then an audible “Oh…” from the audience. Despite this, the First 29 felt they were fulfilling their responsibilities as Americans, feeling compelled to serve after the terrible tragedy at Pearl Harbor. They are men who should be honored and respected by any true patriot.
Gorman’s talk was fantastic and inspiring. The story of the First 29 is incredibly important, especially when told from the perspective of someone whose life is directly tied to it. Attendees came away from Gorman’s talk with a sense of honor and respect for the small group of Navajo men that used their native language, one that many in this country wanted to erase, to win a war.