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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: Hart Hall. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

Hart Hall, which was built in 1928 and renovated in 1992 (restoring much of the building to its original design) houses the Gorman Museum as well as the Department of Native American Studies and other academic programs and departments. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis photo)

Looking Back

Namesakes: Carl N. Gorman

Photo: Carl N. Gorman

Carl N. Gorman was the first UC Davis faculty member to teach Native American art in 1969. (Tony Novelozo/Axiom Photo & Design)

The C.N. Gorman Museum, located inside the historic Hart Hall, has been a showcase for the creative expressions of Native Americans and other artists of diverse cultures and history for more than a quarter century. The museum was created in 1973 by the Native American Studies Program (and later a department) to honor its founding faculty member, Carl N. Gorman, who was born in 1907 and lived a rich life of adventures and artistry before he died in 1998.


Punished as a child for speaking Navajo at a mission school, Carl Gorman was surprised to learn in World War II that the Marines had recruited him and 28 other Navajos for their language.

Gorman became one of the first Navajo “code talkers,” helping the U.S. military develop an encryption system that the Japanese were never able to crack. Gorman was also the oldest of the code talkers, whose numbers grew to an estimated 400 by the war’s end. In spring 1942, Gorman was 34 and lied about his age to join the Marines.

He spent much of the war on the front lines in the Pacific with a radio in his hands. The code talkers’ mission was kept secret, even to their fellow Marines who sometimes mistook them and the code for Japanese.

In fact, the code talkers had to keep their work secret until 1968. A year later, Gorman, who studied art in Los Angeles and worked as an illustrator after the war, joined the UC Davis faculty, helping to found the Native American studies department and creating the Native American art studio workshop.

Still, many of his colleagues did not learn about his war experiences until years later. During a 1997 visit to campus, Gorman said many code talkers felt long bound by government admonishments to keep quiet about the code.

Gorman left the UC Davis faculty in 1973 to direct a native-healing project in Arizona and to paint. In 1995, Northern Arizona University unveiled a code talker monument, a bust of Gorman sculpted by his son, the late artist R.C. Gorman.

“Many people ask me why I fought for my country when the government has treated us pretty bad,” Carl Gorman said at that time. “But before the white man came to this country, this whole land was Indian country and we still think it’s our land, so we fight for it. I was very proud to serve my country.”

Kathleen Holder is interim editor for the UC Davis Magazine.

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