Diné worker fired for speaking Navajo

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times

PAGE, Ariz., May 10, 2012

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W hen Juanita Blake went to the Page-Lake Powell Job Fair March 3, she hoped to get a job as an interpreter for Zion's Way, a home health and hospice care facility, serving the neighboring communities on the reservation.

Like many job seekers assailed by unemployment, Blake was searching for an appropriate position that day.

But job hunting hasn't been easy for her amid the economic malaise

To make matters worst, she lost her job at O'Reilly Auto Parts store when a new manager forbade her from speaking Navajo in the workplace.

Blake was dismissed Feb. 17 on the spot after a rumor about her made the rounds.

"Somehow it got back to the store, and I got fired without warning," she said. "What am I supposed to do when we get Navajo customers who don't speak English? I was pretty upset about it."

Prior to her termination, she told an ex-coworker who works at Lake Powell Ford that the manager's English-only rule "wasn't right."

When asked about the termination, Dustin Sonn, the store manager, referred questions to the O'Reilly Corporation headquarters in Springfield, Miss.

A senior official there stated that she wasn't allowed to give out any information without an attorney present regarding Blake's dismissal.

"This is more of a discrimination issue than anything," Arizona Labor Department Director Randall Maruca said.

When asked about a job at O'Reilly, an employee said the store needed a Navajo-speaking employee since it's located in a town where Navajos make up a substantial part of the workforce.

According to the code of business conduct and ethics on the O'Reilly Corp. website, the company is committed to providing a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment. And it clearly states that discrimination is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated.

"It depends on certain facts of (Blake's) case," said DNA-People's Legal Services Director Levon Henry. "Presumably it would fall under national origin discrimination."

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission compliance manual, national origin discrimination means treating someone in a negative fashion on account of where they come from or their ethnicity.

Nevertheless, English-only rules and national origin discriminations rarely occur here where there's a substantial amount of Diné influence.

In fact, the city of Page was part of the Navajo Nation in 1957 when it was known as Government Camp - a temporary accommodation for construction workers who were building the Glen Canyon Dam.

But due to a land swap under the 1958 Navajo-U.S. Land Exchange Act, the city is now three miles from the reservation.

Because O'Reilly is located off the edge of the northwestern corner of the reservation, the Navajo Preference in Employment Act does not apply, said DNA-People's Legal Services Administrative Director Sylvia Struss.

"Normally, if a person gets fired working under NPEA, the part we're concerned about is whether or not if they were given notice and whether or not if there was cause to fire them," Struss said.

Blake alleged that she was warned not to speak Navajo while on the job. Is this discriminatory?

"When I hear that my ears go up," Struss said. "But if you ask me personally-yes."

The EEOC says there's a difference between what is discriminatory and what is unlawful. Because Native language is associated with national origin, making employment decisions based on the use of that language is considered discriminatory.

"Because it's discriminatory doesn't mean its illegal under the laws we enforce," EEOC Senior Attorney-Adviser Justine Lisser said.

But it sure was in a controversy 12 years ago involving four American Indian women who were terminated from their jobs at R.D.'s Drive-In because they didn't agree to their employer's "No Navajo" policy.

The policy stated, "The owner of this business can speak and understand only English. While the owner is paying you as an employee, you are required to use English at all times. The only exception is when the customer cannot understand English. If you feel unable to comply with this requirement, you may find another job."

Roxanne Cahoon, Ojibwe, and Diné workers Elva Begay, Doretta Benally and Freda Douglas filed a complaint with the EEOC when their employers, Richard and Shauna Kidman, asked all of their employees to consent to an English-only rule.

The EEOC then filed a national origin discrimination lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against R.D.'s Drive-In and the women won their case along with back pay and other benefits..

"Overall, it depends on the facts of her case and what her situation is and if she believes something did happen, the place to start is the EEOC," Henry said.

"It's not right how I've been treated," Juanita Blake said. "I was never really - I was always on time, I was always there for work.

"To me, it feels like, all that time for (O'Reilly) wasn't appreciated," she continued. "It's been really bugging me because I can't sleep at night. Emotionally and mentally, it really affected me."

"We have to get the facts and the context," Stephen Scott with the Arizona Attorney General's Office said. "We're in the business of figuring out people who were treated differently."

Juanita Blake says she's been trying to make ends meet.

"It's hard getting by," she said. "People have told me to take it to court,' but I've not done it yet."

"Based on that we'll see if there's enough there to file a complaint, and we'll do an investigation," Scott said.

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