Original URL:  http://www.arizonarepublic.com/news/articles/0207pageracism.html

Navajos and Whites worlds apart in Page

By Mark Shaffer
The Arizona Republic
Feb. 7, 2003

PAGE - As the all-Navajo work crew at his burger joint on Lake Powell Boulevard busily tends to customers, Richard Kidman wonders aloud why he has become the focal point in a national discussion about the use of Native American language in the workplace.

Why, after he flew all the way to New York City recently, the folks at the Donahue show would place the caption "Angry White Male" under his name. Will Bill O'Reilly do the same on Kidman's upcoming Fox network appearance? What about the planned profile in Fortune magazine?

All he did, Kidman said, was put up a sign, with wording from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's own Web site, warning his employees to check the Navajo language at the door after female workers complained about male co-workers sexually harassing them in Navajo.

He should have fired them for sexual harassment, Kidman says now.

Instead, he's making the rounds on the talk-show circuit to help raise money to take on the EEOC, which filed suit against his R.D.'s Drive-In late last year, the first such federal lawsuit for forbidding Native Americans from speaking their own language on the job.

No action on the lawsuit is expected until the fall, said David Selden, Kidman's Phoenix attorney.

But the fallout and attention from the lawsuit are making this isolated, high-mesa town of nearly 7,000, which borders both the nation's longest lakeshore and largest Indian reservation, more than a little uneasy.

Page city officials say they are doing all they can to make their city Navajo-friendly.

List of complaints

Navajos have a litany of complaints about their treatment:

Page has no Navajo police officers on its 20-member force despite Native Americans composing almost three-quarters of its cases.

And when Mike Anderson, a local Navajo community leader with an extensive law enforcement background, applied for the vacant police chief position recently, he wasn't among the finalists. A White man from western Texas was hired.

No Navajo has ever been elected or appointed to Page's City Council.

The local high school is 70 percent Navajo but only about 10 percent of its teachers are.

When the district recently hired a White man as administrator for a Navajo cultural enrichment program at the high school, former Navajo President Kelsey Begaye threatened a lawsuit. He has not filed one.

Navajos working within the school district say school officials tried to keep transportation workers from speaking Navajo among themselves until Begaye came to town last year for a forum to discuss grievances.

They say that Navajo students are encouraged to enroll at Page's Lake View Elementary School, while Whites are directed to Desert View Elementary School. The school district has an open enrollment policy.

Then, there are the concerns of Navajos living in the nearby LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.

They complain about a senior citizens center in Page they say makes them feel unwelcome. And, they say, if a Navajo's vehicle breaks down outside town, a tow truck won't answer the call.

"Our people who drink in town reflect badly on us," said Irene Whitekiller, president of the LeChee Chapter. "But it's just a few people. Navajos spend a lot of dollars here, and there shouldn't be a rush to judgment about us."

Effort to improve

Page Mayor Dean Slavens said he has been working hard to improve relations between Whites and Native Americans. He said he was especially concerned about no Navajo police officers on Page's police force.

"I've offended a few people how hard I've pushed (for that to change)," he said.

Dennis Veal, Page High School's principal, also said the school system has been in the vanguard of change, as evidenced by its push for the more than $1 million Navajo cultural program.

He said the district also plans job fairs for Native American teacher candidates. Seven of Page's 67 high school teachers are Native American, Veal said.

Wally Brown, a longtime Navajo educator and activist, said the school district rejected his proposal to link the educational curriculum with his local Navajo Village Cultural Center, which teaches the culture by using hogans, a sweat lodge, a bread oven and ramada and trading post replica.

"I don't get that contract. I apply for City Council openings, and they fill those with White people, too. It's all just very frustrating," Brown said.

He also said that Navajos feel unwelcome at the Page senior citizens center and that few go there because of it.

"No one pays any attention to you when you go in. They don't even come over and say hello," Brown said.

Vicki Myers, director of the senior citizens center, said she normally serves two Navajos out of the meals prepared for 80 people daily.

"A lot of them will come to pick up free bread, but not during the lunch hour," Myers said. "This isn't a prejudice thing, though. They go to the seniors center at the LeChee Chapter House to eat."

As for the complaint about tow trucks being reluctant to answer the calls of Navajos, Gary Watson, owner of Transport Towing in Page, said he's eager for all of the business he can get "but there have been problems like that with other tow truck operators in the past."

Business down

Back at R.D.'s, Kidman acknowledged that his Navajo business has declined considerably since the EEOC lawsuit was filed. He is trying to raise $45,000 for his legal fight so Arlington, Va.-based Pro-English, an English-only group, will contribute the same amount.

"The last place I'm going to go is a business that won't let me speak my own language after being forced to go to a boarding school that wouldn't let me speak Navajo or braid my hair in the traditional way," Whitekiller said.

But Kidman's 16 Navajo employees are fiercely loyal.
"This whole thing is ridiculous," said Rolanda Redhair, a longtime R.D.'s employee. "The irony of this is that none of us working here now even speak Navajo anyway."

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8057.