TSA apologizes to Native American woman 'humiliated' during security screening

(Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has apologized to a Native American woman who was recently “humiliated” by an agent’s offensive treatment while passing through a security screening at Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport (MSP).

On Monday morning, attorney and Indigenous rights activist Tara Houska was traveling back to Bemidji through after attending the “Fire Drill Friday" climate change rally in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. While undergoing a routine security screening at MSP’s Terminal 1, Houska was shocked by the “dehumanizing” comments and behavior from a TSA agent, TravelPulse reported.

“The agent said she needed to pat down my braids. She pulled them behind my shoulders, laughed [and] said ‘giddy up!’ as she snapped my braids like reins,” Houska told her 32,000 Twitter followers. “My hair is part of my spirit. I am a Native woman. I am angry, humiliated. Your 'fun' hurt."

“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,’” Houska continued in a separate tweet. “That is NOT an apology and it is NOT okay.”

Houska later added that she has no problem with hair pat-downs, but felt that the TSA employee treated her like an animal.

“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,” the lawyer told the Star Tribune. “The TSA process is invasive, but it does not need to be an insulting process. It is not a good feeling to be treated like a horse.”

The federal security director of the Minnesota TSA has since apologized to Houska and circulated an email to employees declaring that the agency must “learn from this.”

"Did it actually happen? Yes. Exactly as described? Yes," Federal Security Director Cliff Van Leuven said, per KARE 11. "I apologized for how she was treated during the screening of her braids — and we had a very pleasant conversation.

“She reiterated that she doesn't want the Officer to get in trouble, but she is hoping we'll take the chance to continue to educate our staff about the many Native American Tribes/Bands in our state and region to better understand their culture,” Van Leuven added.

The TSA has launched an investigation, which is ongoing, into the incident, KARE 11 reports.

When reached for comment on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the TSA told Fox News that the agency "holds its employees to the highest standards of professional conduct and any type of improper behavior is taken seriously."

“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’s Federal Security Director for Minnesota Cliff Van Leuven spoke with the traveler," the representative confirmed. "He apologized for actions and a comment that were insensitive and made by a TSA officer to the traveler during the screening experience."

Houska similarly chimed in on the TSA's response to the incident via Twitter.

“Good resolution from a bad situation. We need more education [and] empathy for one another,” she said.

The TSA’s body scanners have previously been accused of discriminating against women of color who wear hairstyles including Afros, braids and twists, as detailed in an April report by ProPublica.

A post on hair from the TSA blog confirms that the agency indeed has the authority “to pat-down anyone’s hair when needed, no matter their race or gender.” Approved methods include visual inspection, swabbing for explosives or a physical pat-down.

“You’d be surprised what can be hidden in hair. The most notable things we’re looking for in hair are explosives and improvised explosives device components,” the TSA reports. “Any explosive amount could cause injury.”

Travelers are advised to wear non-metallic hairpins or accessories to reduce their chances of having their hair patted down during security screenings, the TSA says.