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TSA apologizes to Native American traveler after agent snaps braids, says ‘giddyup!’ during pat-down

Tara Houska, an indigenous rights activist and attorney. (Washington Post illustration; Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The Transportation Security Administration apologized to a traveler at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, who used her social media platform to call out the “unacceptable behavior” she faced Monday from a TSA agent who mimicked using her braided hair as reins during a security pat-down.

Tara Houska is an attorney and indigenous rights activist who was in Minnesota to protest the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project. She had flown from Washington, D.C., where she participated in the Fire Drill Friday climate protest.

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On Twitter, Houska spoke about her treatment at the security checkpoint. “Going through @TSA at @mspairport, the agent said she needed to pat down my braids. She pulled them behind my shoulders, laughed & said “giddyup!” as she snapped my braids like reins,” she wrote.

Houska described feeling hurt by the agent, who she said “humiliated” her. “When I informed the middle-aged blonde woman who had casually used her authority to dehumanize and disrespect me, she said ‘Well it was just in fun, I’m sorry. Your hair is lovely.’ <— that is NOT an apology and it is NOT okay,” she added.

It has long been an issue that women of color face in going through TSA checkpoints, where hair worn in braided, twisted or natural styles leads to flags on scanners that prompt agents to pull them aside for more invasive screenings.

It was even addressed in an “Ask TSA” response about hair pat-downs in the case that the “hair area alarms for a potential explosive” or when someone’s “hair looks like it could contain a prohibited item or is styled in a way an officer cannot visually clear it.”

“My hair sets off those scanners always, like pretty much every single time,” Houska says. “That’s something I’m very used to, and my hair has been patted down hundreds and hundreds of times.”

In a statement, the agency said: “TSA was made aware of allegations made by a traveler about her screening experience at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport Monday morning. TSA officials investigated the incident and on Tuesday afternoon, TSA Federal Security Director for Minnesota Cliff Van Leuven spoke with the traveler. He apologized for actions and a comment that were insensitive and made by a TSA officer to the traveler during the screening experience.”

“TSA holds its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct and any type of improper behavior is taken seriously,” the statement continued.

In a letter to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (also known by code MSP) staff Tuesday, Van Leuven confirmed the incident took place. “Did it actually happen? Yes. Exactly as described? Yes.” He described the agent’s behavior as “insensitive” during the screening and said he spoke with and apologized to Houska directly for the treatment she endured.

Van Leuven said Houska wasn’t seeking discipline for the agent involved but rather wanted the incident to be a learning opportunity for TSA to “educate staff about the many Native American Tribes/Bands in our state and region to better understand their culture.” Houska said TSA extended an offer for her to come speak to agents or do a training video on sensitivity toward indigenous issues, which she plans to accept.

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Houska, who is Ojibwe, said she travels frequently for speaking engagements and shared with Van Leuven that she hasn’t had any concerns with TSA in Minnesota respecting sacred items or Tribal IDs before, which added to her surprise during the incident Monday.

“We all make mistakes,” Van Leuven said. “Treating the public we are sworn to serve and protect with dignity and respect is our calling — every passenger, every day. We’ll learn from this.”

Houska acknowledged the apology on Twitter and was emphatic that training be taken seriously. Her takeaway is that she wants people to show more empathy toward one another and to highlight the poor treatment indigenous people continue to face to this day.

“I really, really hope this doesn’t happen to anyone else moving forward,” she wrote.

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