TACOMA — A decision about an 84-year-old woman’s cane hinted at the cultural gap between federal courthouse personnel and Native American citizens who use the court system.
Everett resident and respected Native rights activist Anna Haala arrived at the Chinook Nation’s May 8 hearing in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington wearing a striking red and white traditional garments trimmed with intricate beadwork and shell button designs.
She also carried with her a handmade red wooden walking stick that caused a stir when she tried to go through the courthouse’s security checkpoint. U.S. Marshals who are contracted to do court security told Haala that even though she needs her stick to walk, she couldn’t bring it into the courtroom because it could be used as a weapon.
Two marshals at the scene declined to answer a Chinook Observer reporter’s questions about how they typically accommodate people who use canes. They promised they were working on the issue, but Haala ended up waiting in the lobby.
After the hearing, Haala, who is of Tlingit descent, said her family suffered terribly under federal policies that allowed government officials to break up Native families. She became a ward of the state, her mother died of a chronic illness, and her father’s life fell apart after he lost his children.
“My mother was sent down to Oregon through the relocation act that the government dreamed up,” Haala said. “You transfer all your children somewhere else or send them off to a school.”
Her experiences led her to spend decades standing up for Chinook recognition and other Native rights causes in Washington.
Through her activism, she’s developed strong ties in Indian Country. Her walking stick is a gift from a Snoqualmie craftsman that helps her connect with her culture. She sometimes uses it as a ceremonial staff.
With its bright color and band of shells around the top, the staff doesn’t look like a typical cane. However, it’s outfitted with a white rubber safety tip, just like other canes. Because just like other cane-users, Haala relies on it to get around. Haala said she has stopped going to one annual Native American event because she has trouble navigating stairs.
“I use it for support,” Haala, a mother of six, said. “I’ve had two back operations.”
A recent federal document about how the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to canes and other mobility aids says facilities may ban these devices because of “legitimate safety requirements.” However, “Such safety requirements must be based on actual risks, not on speculation or stereotypes about a particular device, or how it might be operated by people with disabilities using them.” Furthermore, facilities must provide an alternative that allows the disabled person equal access.
District Court spokesman Bill McCool said security conflicts over mobility aids are very rare. He did not know how many other canes or walking sticks marshals have banned from courtrooms in recent years. As of May 14, the court’s web page did not specify which types of mobility aids are permissible. McCool said he would look into putting more information about the security rules on the website. He recommended that people who use mobility aids call the courthouse ahead of time.
“It helps, especially for people of different cultures with different aids,” McCool said. He noted that Marshals “default toward security,” because there are real safety threats in federal courthouses.
“You have to understand we confiscate a number of weapons at our security points every day,” McCool said.
Deputy U.S. Marshal Beatrice Pharr, a spokeswoman for the Marshals in Western Washington, said she was glad to have learned of the incident, but would not elaborate about how Marshals determine which canes are acceptable. She was not familiar with the incident, and could not say what, specifically, led marshals to ban a senior citizen’s walking stick.
“We are going to be looking into the matter,” Pharr said. “Beyond that, I don’t have any additional comment.”