WINSTED, Conn. – A complaint alleging discrimination against award-winning musician Joseph Firecrow has been filed with United Airlines.
Firecrow, Cheyenne, and his wife, Joanne Moore-Firecrow, were on their way home to Connecticut from California with a stopover in Chicago on Aug. 10 when the incident occurred. When the couple’s flight from Chicago to Connecticut was delayed, Moore-Firecrow put their names on standby for another flight. She was called to board, but Firecrow was not.
“I asked the woman at the counter if they would be calling Joseph’s name. She looked at him and said, ‘Oh, I doubt he’s going to get on this flight,’” Moore-Firecrow told Indian Country Today.
Firecrow, who wears long braids and dresses traditionally, said he expected to be called after his wife and was surprised when he wasn’t.
“I looked up and they were speaking and Joanne pointed me out and I actually perked up so the attendant would see me. The attendant looked directly at me and then turned to Joanne, and by the expression on her face I could tell that something was wrong,” Firecrow said.
Firecrow said he didn’t jump to conclusions as he walked over to the counter.
“There’s so many people and so much diversity at that international airport that discrimination isn’t really on your mind. But I didn’t like the way the woman was treating Joanne. It was very disrespectful; almost hostile,” Firecrow said, and it “became evident” he was being targeted for exclusion.
Firecrow said he is pursuing the complaint because “letting it slide would be very irresponsible. It would mean giving in to hate and aggression and fear. I choose to take the opportunity to care what happens so I can walk this path in an honest way. And multinational corporations like United have a responsibility to the community as well as its customers,” Firecrow said.
Firecrow’s long list of achievements and awards was topped this year by the 2006 Native American Music Award for Flutist of the Year, but the couple declined to mention his fame during the incident.
“We could have played the celebrity card and said, ‘Do you know who this is?’ but we didn’t want to do that,” Moore-Firecrow said.
The couple flew home together on a later flight and on Aug. 22, Moore-Firecrow wrote to Glenn Tilton, United Airlines’ chairman, president and CEO.
“The way the woman spoke to me left me with the impression that my husband was being discriminated against. After they called my name they called 10 to 12 more names, why couldn’t my husband have been amongst those? Why would the clerk assume that a husband and wife traveling together would accept traveling on separate planes? When I asked why my name might be called, but my husband’s was not, I was told that it had something to do with his ‘status’ with United. This answer was incomprehensible to me,” Moore-Firecrow said
Moore-Firecrow said she and her husband realized it was a stressful day for everyone because of the elevated security alert due to an alleged terrorist plot in England, but despite the tension she had remained polite.
“Days after we returned home it still upset me. We are regular United fliers and this experience has moved me so that I felt compelled to write to you and I will consider flying other airlines in the future,” Moore-Firecrow wrote.
Tilton did not respond to her letter.
Earlier in November, Moore-Firecrow mentioned the incident to Jay Winter Nightwolf, an American Indian radio commentator and host on WPFW 89.3 FM, a public radio station in Washington, D.C. Winter Nightwolf contacted Christine Rose, the executive director of Changing Winds Advocacy Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization in Fairfield, Conn., with offices around the country.
Rose e-mailed United on Nov. 8, asking how to lodge a discrimination complaint. The e-mail was copied to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She said her organization has received other complaints of racial discrimination involving United.
“This being Native American Heritage Month, our organization will be appearing on radio stations throughout the country to promote the elimination of discriminatory situations such as these. We would very much like to air that United will take a firm position against these kinds of offenses by their employees when we discuss, on the air, the problems people of color have experienced while waiting to board your planes. We will also invite listeners to send us any other discriminatory complaints as well,” Rose wrote.
The complaints, Rose noted, did not involve security issues, but were “pure and simple discrimination by the attendants at the boarding gates.”
Helen Chellin, a United spokesman, responded, “The company takes complaints of discrimination seriously and will conduct a thorough review of them upon receipt of specific information. We also will take appropriate corrective action to address conduct which we find violates our ‘Equal Treatment of Customer Policy.’”
Rose filed a formal complaint with United on Nov. 15. She said her organization intends to continue to air Firecrow’s complaint on public radio. She asked United for a statement detailing how it intends to remedy incidents of alleged discrimination.
“We do not pursue lawsuits. We pursue justice and reconciliation. We hope that you will join us in our efforts,” Rose wrote.
United did not respond to an e-mail from ICT seeking comment.