Joy Harjo. Photo: Tulsa City-County Library

Joy Harjo: That time my hands tested positive for 'explosives' at the airport

You've seen the terrifying videos and read the horrifying stories about airline travel these days. But what if it happens to you? Joy Harjo, a musician, poet and playwright from the Muscogee Nation, shares her recent experience:
A few weeks ago, I was on my way to the Northern Lights Festival Boréal in Sudbury, Ontario in Canada. My travel was booked in two different airlines and usually airlines transfer bags. While checking in, in Knoxville, I learned there are new rules. The originating airline will not transfer bags to the next airline if they are not an airline in their alliance. That meant that I would have to pick up my bag in Toronto then find my way, with all of my bags (I carried on my saxophone and a computer bag), from one terminal to another. This meant finding the train, boarding and riding the train, checking in with a different airline and returning through security again for my connecting flight to Sudbury. I decided I would have a good attitude about it and sing my way through the process—not aloud of course—I was lucky in that my connection gave me enough time.

I am often taken aside for random testing at security. I am read sometimes as Native, frequently Hispanic, or otherwise somehow different. My tattooed hand marks me. I carry musical instruments. When I rechecked into security in Toronto my hands were swabbed. I set off the alarm. I tested positive for explosives. I was taken aside for a pat down and my bags set aside to be searched. I kept singing in my mind and smiled at the pat down official. Because I set an intention to be calm no matter what I had to go through to check in all over again. When my bags came through the machine I assumed I was done. I picked up my stuff and left security.

This happened once before last December in New Orleans. I was immediately surrounded by TSA officials and police. I grabbed for my phone and dialed my husband just as the TSA agent who discovered what she said was evidence of explosives on my water bottle, warned me not to touch my belongings or my phone. She eyed me suspiciously the whole time. I kept my husband on speaker as a swarm of uniformed male agents took out books and papers and read through them. They asked me where I had been, what I had been doing. I kept my phone on so my husband would know where to look for me, if something happened, if I disappeared. My rights were being violated. We lose them every time we go through security.

Read More on the Story:
Joy Harjo: Airline Security: Why I Am Considering Not Flying Anymore (Indian Country Media Network 7/27)