An official of the Transportation Security Administration apologized Tuesday to a Native American air traveler who says an agent treated her offensively at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
Tara Houska has had past trouble with her braids setting off alarms as she passed through airport body scanners, but she said she has never experienced anything like what happened Monday.
Houska said a TSA employee patted down her braids looking for weapons, began laughing, and then pulled them back behind her head and “whipped them like reins.”
“It was a very uncomfortable situation,” Houska said in an interview Tuesday. “My issue is not with her patting down my hair. My issue is with her acting like I am a horse. I am a woman.”
Houska, a prominent environmental and Indigenous-rights attorney and activist, took to Twitter to share her humiliating experience and demand a response from the TSA.
In a statement, the agency said TSA officials investigated the incident, and on Tuesday afternoon TSA’s Federal Security Director for Minnesota Cliff Van Leuven spoke with Houska and apologized for the officer’s actions and comment.
“TSA holds its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct and any type of improper behavior is taken seriously,” the statement said.
Houska had flown to Minneapolis from Washington, D.C., where she had attended the “Fire Drill Friday” climate protest with celebrities including Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix. Houska was protesting for Indigenous rights and to oppose the controversial Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project in Minnesota.
She missed her Sunday night connecting flight to Bemidji, Minn., so stayed in the Twin Cities until Monday. That’s when she had “a lousy experience at the airport,” she said.
Houska, who is Ojibwe, is a frequent traveler. She said her braids often set off scanners, as they did at MSP on Monday. That led to the pat-down and Houska telling the agent that pulling on braids like someone guiding a horse was not OK.
“I was really offended,” Houska said. “I asked her if she was done with my hair, and she was still laughing. I went to pick up my bags and she was still laughing.”
Houska said the agent said she was sorry and didn’t mean harm and then complimented her hair.
Women, particularly black women, from across the nation have long said they get pulled out of the security line because scanners are prone to identify thick hair as an unidentifiable, potentially dangerous object. That forces them to endure inconvenient, often embarrassing hair pat-downs, according to a report published in April by ProPublica.
Additionally, the TSA on its website tells travelers that accessories such as bobby pins, metal clips, ties, wraps, and even bows may cause an alarm. Wigs, toppers and certain hairstyles such as braids or a hair bun may also set off alarms, the agency said.
“You’d be surprised what can be hidden in hair,” the TSA website said. “The most notable things we’re looking for in hair are explosives and improvised explosives device components. Any explosive amount could cause injury.”
Houska said nobody should have to go through a dehumanizing experience like she did. She wants the TSA to have better training in place so workers understand how their actions can be hurtful and disrespectful.
“The TSA process is invasive, but it does not need to be an insulting process,” she said. “It is not a good feeling to be treated like a horse.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.