Nineteen of the 21 employees at RD's Drive-In in Page, Ariz., are Navajo Indians - but none of them can speak their native Dine language at work. In early October, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against the locally owned burger joint for its English-only policy.
Four former Navajo employees, who refused to abide by the policy, approached the EEOC with the case - the first English-only lawsuit filed on behalf of Native American language speakers. Dine is the most widely spoken tribal language in the U.S. and gained federal support in 1990, when Congress passed the Native Languages Act (HCN, 1/21/02).
Steve Kidman, a non-Indian, who owns and operates RD's Drive-In with his father, says they instituted their English-only policy only after employees insulted customers and made derogatory comments about other workers in Dine. "The EEOC keeps trying to turn this into a language thing," says Kidman, "but really it's a rude behavior thing." He says the current Navajo employees follow the policy as "an understood courtesy."
EEOC trial attorney David Lopez says the restaurant has no legitimate need for the policy, and notes that it prohibits workers from speaking Dine even during breaks. "We hope this (case) demonstrates that if (Native Americans) stand up for themselves," says Lopez, "we will work with them."
The case will probably go to trial by May 2004.