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Seen In A New Light

My grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker in World Ward II. His service shaped much of his life following the war. He used his GI Bill to attend Otis Art Institute in California.

I was born in 1984 near the Navajo Indian Reservation in Gallup, New Mexico. My grandfather had a studio in our house where he hung art, Marine Corps memorabilia, and photos of his fellow Marines and Code Talkers. He was also often interviewed. We had visitors from all over the world coming to the house to speak with him. 

These photographs were like the sofa or the dinner table: they were an ever present part of my childhood. I was very familiar with each of them, as I would often see them in books and - as the age of the internet came about - on webpages, google searches and so on.  As the colors began to fill the image, they took on a new life and a I began to find things I had overlooked for my entire life.

In this photo of my grandfather on Saipan I was amazed at the beauty of the bright turquoise stone set in his ring against the background of green, fatigues, and brown skin. So different from the images of Marines in war I have known my whole life from news, movies, and other media.

My grandfather was a bit of a rebel as both a child and teenager. He was proud of his Navajo heritage and wanted to speak Navajo, make art, and listen to classical music. When he was enrolled in school with his brothers at Rehoboth Christian School near Gallup, NM he was forbidden from speaking Navajo. While some of his teachers encouraged his art, one of his teachers buying a drawing he had done of Church Rock which could be seen from the campus, the headmaster was very strict and seemed to enjoy making an example of my grandfather when he refused to adhere to the english only policy.

This all came to a head when in his second year he refused to speak english and as punishment was chained to the radiator and placed on bread rations for three days in the basement of the school. It was February, it was cold, and it was nearly 90 miles to home. He set out with his brothers and arrived at his home in Chinle with his younger brother, very ill from the long journey. When he told his parents of the incident, they removed him from the school and placed him in the Albuquerque Indian School. He already had a bad taste for authority and school from his experience, and he found himself still getting into trouble. An older boy asked why he carried this chip on his shoulder and gave him an outlet for his anger via sports. He excelled at football, boxing and began to focus his energies on studies. He completed all of his courses and was offered sports scholarships to universities in Texas. But upon his graduation he didn't receive a high school diploma. Instead he was given a certificate of farming. He tore it up and returned home.

He worked several jobs on the reservation in this time between leaving school and the war. Perhaps defeated to some degree, he lost part of his identity. He married and had his first son, Rudy - who you may know better as R.C.. When the war began, he and the other Navajos working for the government lost their jobs. Times were hard on the reservation. He joined the Marines and began the chapter that would reshape his life.

"The Marines made a man out of me. They also made a proud Navajo out of me."

He, along with the other Code Talkers recruited, used their language to create a code that was never broken and was credited with changing the tide of the war for the United States. While on embarked between duties, one of his sergeants, said "Gorman, tell us about your culture.". My grandfather responded that his culture didn't matter, or that he had no culture. His sergeant jumped down his throat faster than he had experienced since boot camp. He told him that his language was saving lives, that you are born with your culture, and you die with your culture.

This photo stands out perhaps the most. It was the one he hung in his studio. It is a photo of him [far right], Jack Nez [center], and Oscar Ilthma [far left] on Saipan.

He and Oscar Ilthma were both injured while on litter duty when a shell exploded near them on Saipan. My grandfather received a concussion while Oscar was hit with the shrapnel. They both survived their injuries, but Oscar suffered severe pain following the war. Oscar died in March 1949 and was buried at the Fort Defiance Navajo Veterans Cemetery.When I was about 5 or 6, while I was accompanying him on a trip between our home in Ft. Defiance and the True Value in Window Rock, he drove us to the cemetery. We walked the rows of head stones until we found Oscars. He cleared some weeds from around his grave and placed a flag in the ground near his headstone. I don't know if he ever really came to terms with his death.

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