A trans water protector finding community at the heart of a protest

Lea has always felt like the odd one out. Unlike the rest of her Oglala Sioux family, she wasn’t raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Instead she grew up in Pierre, South Dakota, after her parents moved for work. She went to public school, where she was the only Native kid in her class. People asked her all kinds of questions about “what Indians do,” but even if she wanted to answer—and wasn’t so shy that she couldn’t make eye contact—she wouldn’t have felt qualified to say.

When she transitioned her junior year of college and started taking estrogen, her social anxiety only got worse, as she was met with confusion and pushback from both her classmates and her family. Lea retreated into internet gaming and fan communities, where she felt like she could just be herself. That’s where she met her boyfriend, Jacob, who told her she was perfect exactly as she was. But he was a white guy, and didn’t understand how alienated Lea felt from both her culture and the world outside it.

When water protectors started defending their land against the Line 3 pipeline, Jacob wanted to go. Lea joined him, even though it made her feel like a fraud: How could she protest on behalf of her people when she didn’t feel like she had any real connection with them? But when the pipeline’s private security teams brought in guard dogs, and police started using water cannons, Jacob wasn’t the one arrested—Lea was. She was accused of violence and trespassing and held in a rural county jail, where she didn’t have access to her estrogen. Humiliated and full of rage and grief, Lea started to have a panic attack—but when the Indigenous activists noticed, they formed a protective ring around her, creating space for her to breathe, gently talking her through the attack.

For the first time, Lea felt like a part of her community. The activists started talking, and she listened. She got to know where they came from, what they were fighting for. She told them about her gaming network, how so many of her friends wanted to help the water protectors but didn’t know how or what to do. When Jacob finally scraped together the money to bail her out, the first thing Lea said to him was, “I finally know what I really am: a bridge.”