The drone images from above, played on national television and shared on social media, conjure thoughts of the '60s, when water cannons were used on civil rights protesters.
"I agree, that is a bad optic out there," said Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol. "But people are watching clips on Facebook; what's missing is the totality of the circumstances and what led up to that."
Iverson took CNN to the law enforcement side of the Backwater Bridge, the flashpoint for two major confrontations between police and protesters in what was otherwise nearly eight months of peaceful assembly at the Oceti Sakowin camp. That's where upward of 10,000 people from as far away as Hawaii ebbed and flowed into the makeshift camp about a mile from where the pipeline is being constructed on treaty land adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.
"Day in and day out agitators kept coming up to that line (at the bridge)," Iverson said. "What do protesters want us to do right there? Should we just let them run over us? Well, if that's what they want of us, that's not what you're going to get."
Iverson said on the night law enforcement used fire hoses -- he says calling them water cannons is inflammatory — hundreds of protesters had gathered near the bridge, and some were trying to get around the law enforcement line. Police first tried using tear gas, he said.
"The wind was not conducive to that because the wind was blowing it right back at us," Iverson said. "At that point the agitators started fires and a water truck was called up to the scene" to put out the fires.
Iverson said the commanding officer made a decision that since other methods to contain the crowd were not working, the fire hose was the next viable option.
"I can guarantee you that there was not a single person there that got wet who did not want to get wet," he said. "You put yourself in that situation of where you were right on the front lines intentionally knowing that water was there, because you were given plenty of heads-up warning."
Iverson said some protesters stood their ground in the freezing temperatures anyway because it made for a dramatic image in the national spotlight.
But members of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation have a different view, saying police amped up protesters with a militaristic approach.
"They showed up with military Humvees and armored personnel carriers, in full military garb," said Dallas Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, an organization dedicated to protecting sacred land. "They instigated a situation that did not need to be instigated."
Goldtooth doesn't deny that "we have to do our best to hold our folks accountable," but he said a tit-for-tat discussion over whom is to blame misses the point that the police approach furthered generations of hurt within the Native American community.
"It was so triggering for a lot of our people who carry a genetic memory of that same experience, but more dangerous and more lethal, going back a number of generations," Goldtooth said.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault is ready to move to the next phase of the conflict, battling Donald Trump's administration, which is largely expected to overturn the Army Corps of Engineers' decision to effectively reroute the pipeline
Archambault has told campers to go home until Trump takes office next year and the legal fight resumes (some have vowed to stay). In the meantime, Archambault wants history to remember most the mass of humanity that gathered at Oceti Sakowin on the tribe's behalf.
"This is the first time in our history that we have been joined by people of all races to support us against huge odds in the dead of winter," Archambault said. "It means something because Native Americans feel like we are finally being heard."