Sandor iron Rope, the immediate past president of the Native American Church of North America, was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that requires the Transportation Security Administration to improve its handling of sacred and religious items. Photo: Fort Berthold Native American Church Chapter

Settlement helps Native Americans who travel with sacred objects

Transportation Security Administration agrees to improve training

Federal agents mistreated Native American Church practitioner's sacred items
By Kevin Abourezk

In February, the rattlesnakes are still sleeping in south Texas, but the peyote cactus is in full bloom.

That makes it a perfect time for peyote hunters to make their annual pilgrimage to the only region of the United States where the peyote plant grows.

That’s where Sandor Iron Rope found himself in February 2015, picking peyote to use in ceremonies hosted by his organization, the Native American Church of North America, which had gathered that month in south Texas for a conference.

After the conference ended, Iron Rope boarded an airplane in San Antonio on his way home to South Dakota when agents for the Transportation Security Administration stopped him and asked to search a box he was carrying with him.

Iron Hope had placed his sacred objects, including his staff, gourd, rattle, feathers and fans, inside the box and feared the TSA agents would damage the objects.

“He wanted to be the one that physically manipulated anything,” said Forrest Tahdooahnippah, his attorney. “He was willing to allow a visual inspection of anything in the box.”

The Transportation Security Administration will be distributing information to agents to agents to help them improve their handling of Native sacred and religious objects. Source: Native American Church of North America v. TSA

The agents, however, were adamant and began pulling the sacred objects out of the box. As they finished their inspection and began placing the objects back inside the box, they bent some of Iron Rope’s feathers.

Knowing it wasn’t the first time TSA agents had mistreated sacred items belonging to a Native American Church member, Iron Rope decided to do something about it.

In February 2017, he and the Native American Church of North America (NACNA) filed a lawsuit against the TSA, alleging violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Iron Rope’s civil rights as a result of the February 2015 airport incident. On January 26, he and his church settled the lawsuit with the federal agency.

Under the terms of the settlement, the TSA has agreed to begin educating its agents about how to properly handle sacred items belonging to Native Americans. That education will include publication of an internal fact sheet about Native American religious items to be given to TSA employees.

TSA employees at five airports will be required to review the fact sheet. Those airports are: Denver, Phoenix, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Omaha and Oklahoma City.

TSA also has agreed to collaborate with NACNA to produce an educational webinar that will be required viewing for agents at 10 airports: Albuquerque; Durango, Colorado; Farmington, New Mexico; Great Falls, Montana; Laredo, Texas; McAllen, Texas; Minot, North Dakota; Rapid City, South Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and San Antonio.

The federal agency also plans to invite NACNA to join the TSA’s Multicultural Branch Coalition and participate in future conferences, meetings and events.

The TSA educational materials instruct agents to respect Native Americans who profess to be carrying religious items and to try to avoid touching those sacred objects as much as possible.

“Use professionalism and care when handling religious items and be aware that they may be delicate or fragile,” the TSA says in one publication.

For more than 5,000 years, indigenous people have used peyote in religious ceremonies. The Native American Church was established in 1918 to provide legal protection to its Native members in their use of peyote, a practice allowed by federal law.

Tahdooahnippah, a citizen of the Comanche Nation who was the lead attorney for the lawsuit against the TSA, said in his research he learned of numerous similar incidents involving Native American Church members being mistreated by TSA agents.

The TSA, however, has proven itself more than willing to treat sacred objects belonging to members of other religions with great deference, he said.

“For other religions, they do make accommodations,” he said.

He said he hopes the settlement increases the public’s understanding of the Native American Church.

“I hope it just raises awareness, for not only Native American Church members but for all Native Americans,” he said.

Turtle Talk has posted additional documents from the case, Native American Church of North America and Sandor Iron Rope v. TSA

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