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Commission: Day's Jewelers Hostile Toward Native American Employee

By a unanimous vote, the Maine Human Rights Commission recently found "reasonable grounds" to believe that the owners of Day's Jewelers created a hostile work environment for a Native American employee because of his race.

The commission upheld an investigator's findings that the company subjected the longtime employee to pejorative terms and offensive images.

Harassment on the basis of race is a violation of the Maine Human Rights Act. Such harassment includes unwelcome comments, jokes and other acts.

For commissioners to determine whether someone's claim of a hostile work environment exists, they have to consider the frequency and severity of the discriminatory conduct. Is it, for example, humiliating or offensive?

Jason Brown says when it came to his boss, the co-owner of Day's Jewelers, it was.

Day's includes six retail stores in Maine and New Hampshire and employs more than 100 workers.

"He told a Maine Human Rights Commission investigator that he thought that we were friends, so that made it OK for him to show me pictures of his brother, who's also an owner of the company, dressed up and mocking my culture, dressing up like a Native American and acting out some sort of scene," he says.

Brown worked for Day's Jewelers for close to seven years in several different jobs. He says his boss routinely called him "Big Indian," made wisecracks about "Indians and firewater" in front of his co-workers and once told a non-native employee with a long, black braid that she looked like a "squaw."

"He didn't know that using the term 'squaw' was offensive, and I don't know how anybody living in Maine could not know that, especially with everything that happened to change the place names in Maine from that word," Brown says.

In Maine, dozens of towns, mountains, lakes and other public places had their names changed after Gov. Angus King signed a bill into law in 2000 requiring them to end the use of the offensive word.

"That happened in about 2006," says Stephen Langsdorf, an attorney for Day's Jewelers. "He was told at that time that that term was offensive. He wasn't aware of it at that point and he accepted that and apologized and moved on."

Langsdorf says the company has a long history of treating its employees fairly and being an excellent place to work. He says company owners valued and trusted Brown, who eventually resigned because of what Brown believes was escalating harassment.

"The company believes that whatever he is upset about is, at worst, a misunderstanding," Langsdorf says. "They really had a great relationship with him and any types of comments that were made to him were absolutely joking and not meant to offend him in any way."

Brown says he was especially put off by the co-owners' use of the N-word, which has also been used to describe native people. He says at one point his boss posted a Facebook photo of himself in black-face, a photo that was left on the company server.

Brown says he feels vindicated and validated by the commission's ruling.

"We are not squaws," he says. "We are not big Indians who cannot handle our firewater. We're not something to dress up and mock in a drunken party. End of story."

Brown's attorney, Eric Mehnert, says it's not often that native people make claims of discrimination in Maine. He says it's gratifying that the commission recognized that pejorative terms and offensive images can constitute a hostile work environment based on race.

The parties will now meet to determine a possible remedy in the case. If an agreement cannot be reached, the matter may have to be settled in court.