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"I am angry, humiliated." TSA investigating agent's conduct toward Indigenous woman

KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul logo KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul 1/14/2020 Danny Spewak
Tara Houska looking at a computer screen © Provided by KARE-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul

A prominent attorney and Indigenous rights activist says a TSA agent pulled her braids and made an offensive comment Monday morning as she made her way through MSP Airport security, prompting TSA to launch an investigation into the allegation. 

Tara Houska said the incident happened around 10:30 a.m., as she sought to catch a connecting flight to Bemidji upon returning from the "Fire Drill Friday" climate protest this weekend in Washington, D.C. 

At MSP's Terminal 1, Houska said a TSA agent told her she needed to pat down her braids to check for weapons. "She pulled them behind my shoulders, laughed & said 'giddyup!' as she snapped my braids like reins," Houska posted on Twitter. "My hair is part of my spirit. I am a Native woman. I am angry, humiliated. Your 'fun' hurt."

In an interview with KARE 11, Houska said she immediately told the agent her actions and comments were offensive — but she said the agent laughed, claimed she was kidding and said she "didn't mean to offend you."

"But it was very offensive. She was laughing as I walked away," Houska said. "It's TSA and so it's invasive no matter what -- it's their job to sometimes pat you down and it's part of safety and I get that, I frequently fly through the airport — that said, it was dehumanizing and just really disrespectful. It was kind of humiliating to be honest, as a person but also as an indigenous person." 

In a statement, a TSA spokesperson said the agency is "aware" of the allegations and that it is "currently reviewing CCTV from the security checkpoint at MSP to determine what may have happened. TSA will take appropriate action should an investigation substantiate the traveler's allegation."

Official social media accounts also tweeted public responses. Within an hour, the official MSP Airport account apologized to Houska and promised to send her tweet to TSA's leadership. "We'd also be happy to file a formal complaint on your behalf, if you DM us your contact information," the airport's account tweeted. An airport spokesperson later clarified that MSP can pass along the complaints to TSA but cannot actually file the complaint itself.  

The account @AskTSA, a verified Twitter handle that fields questions from travelers, responded with its own tweet to Houska shortly after the alleged incident. "We regret to hear that you had a bad experience at the the security checkpoint," the account tweeted. "If you're willing, please DM your email address, so that we may gather more details."

The TSA spokesperson said the agency does not yet have a complaint on record but vowed to investigate any allegation of improper behavior. Houska said she plans to file a complaint, adding that she appreciates MSP's willingness to help with the process. 

Houska also pointed out the fact that she had just returned from the Fire Drill Friday climate protest with celebrities like Jane Fonda and Joaquin Phoenix, where she fought for Indigenous rights and vocally opposed the controversial Line 3 Pipeline project in Minnesota.

"Coming back from a situation where I'm demonstrating about Indigenous rights, then coming back through and experiencing something like that? Yes, those are two different things, but they're also all connected," Houska said. "All these little microaggressions add up, and we should be treating each other with respect across the board."

Houska said she does not want the employee fired and does not seek retribution.

"I would actually hope that TSA does a better job of training its employees to understand why this is not OK," Houska said. "The outcome is hurtful. So think about why that was hurtful and treat other people with more respect... When you casually use authority to be disrespectful to other people, that's part of a whole systemic problem."

WATCH: Whistleblower says US airports are becoming unsafe (provided by CNN)

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