Navajo Code Talker collections donated to University of New Mexico

Pfc. Carl Gorman at an observation post overlooking Saipan, 1944. (Photo/U.S. Marine Corps, National Archives)

Pfc. Carl Gorman at an observation post overlooking Saipan, 1944. (Photo/U.S. Marine Corps, National Archives)


William Dean Wilson (AKA Dene Bill Yazzie - WWII) (Photo/ William Dean Wilson Collection, Carl Gorman family collection, Center for Southwest Research UNM)

ALBUQUERQUE. — The University Libraries proudly celebrates Native American Heritage Month by shining a light on recently added indigenous collections in the Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections (CSWR).

The Carl N. Gorman and William Dean Wilson collections document the lives and service of the men, who were among the first 29 Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. The collections were donated by Zonnie Gorman — a recognized historian on the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, prior CSWR Graduate Fellow and daughter of Gorman.

The first 29 were the initial group recruited by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1942 as the pilot of Navajo men to test the feasibility of using the Navajo language for combat communications. They became Platoon 382, the first all-Native, all-Navajo platoon in Marine Corps history. The Navajo Code Talkers service to the country significantly impacted the outcome of the war.

Both collections include military documents and photos from their lives, including their time in the military. Wilson’s collection contains six boxes and is available with permission from the donor. The Carl Gorman collection is currently still being processed with about 52 boxes of materials.

Between 1969 and 1973, Carl Gorman was a professor at the University of California Davis. There, he was one of the four founding faculty of the Native American Studies Department. Gorman received an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters from the University of New Mexico in 1990 for his lifelong work and achievements in Indian art, education and culture.

Zonnie Gorman is a doctoral candidate within the UNM History department and is writing her dissertation about the original group of Navajo Code Talkers. Zonnie was also a CSWR graduate fellow in 2021 and was tasked with processing both the Wilson and Gorman collection.

“As a descendent of a Code Talker and a love of history, this became my life,” Zonnie said. “At the time I first became interested, there was not a lot of information about the first pilot group of Code Talkers and so that is what kind of inspired me to start doing research.”

During the early 90s, Zonnie sought out the other members of the pilot group and was able to find eight men and interviewed them all individually. Soon after, Zonnie and her father worked together to lecture across the country.

“I would talk about the historical background of pre-World War II Navajo reservations and he would share is personal experience. We did a lot of interviews and lectures including at NASA and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.”


Carl Gorman in dress blues c. 1945 (Photo/ William Dean Wilson Collection, Carl Gorman family collection, Center for Southwest Research UNM)

Zonnie discussed how difficult the decision was to part with her father’s belongings and to find an institution she felt her father’s materials would be safe and protected.

Zonnie continues to educate the public about the Navajo Code Talkers as a lecturer and consultant. She also helps Code Talker descendants.

“I am approached by many families asking for help finding family members’ military documents and files.”

Recently, Zonnie was interviewed by The History Channel for a human interest segment called Saving Our History – Navajo Code Talkers. As a result, the History Channel donated $10,000 to Zonnie to help with her work as a Navajo Code Talker historian.

“I want to help other Code Talker descendants by offering workshops and seminars that provide them with the necessary information about archival practices and how institutions work to help them preserve their family history,” she said.

Earlier this semester, Zonnie, in collaboration with CSWR and Navajo Nation Museum, organized archival workshops for descendant families to learn basic archival practices to preserve photos and documents. Each participant was given a community archive kit that included an archival box, samplings of photo and document sleeves, gloves, and a USB drive. Digital scanners were also brought to the workshop to help participants make digital copies of their documents and photos to help preserve them.

Cindy Abel Morris, CSWR pictorial archivist, discussed photo preservation while Jolene Manus, CSWR Native American collections curator, talked about Native American protocols and working with CSWR for collections. Zonnie also gave a presentation about her own experience on donating her collections to CSWR. Chris Geherin, CSWR archivist, was not only instrumental in helping get the collections to CSWR, but also was a key part of the workshops as well.

The University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections (CSWR) specializes in preserving historical manuscripts, books, photographs, architectural drawings, recordings, and other library materials relating to New Mexico, the Southwestern U.S., and Latin America. It also houses the UNM University Archives, as well as a collection of rare books on various topics from around the world.

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