Competing groups are trying to define the Dakota Access pipeline debate. So where does the truth lie?

Opposing sides in the increasingly tense standoff over the Dakota Access oil pipeline have found little to agree on. But on this fact there is no dispute: Sometime between 3 and 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 21, a young woman demonstrating against the pipeine nearly had her arm blown off. 

But agreement ends there. Depending on the point of view, the explosion that mangled Sophia Wilansky’s left arm happened either because police launched a concussion grenade, or because a propane canister rigged by activists exploded in her hand.

The horrific injury to Wilansky, who remains in a Minneapolis hospital facing multiple surgeries to save her arm, exemplifies the war of conflicting narratives over a portion of the 3.8-billion, 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline being built in North Dakota. 

Her injury is the latest major incident in an eight-month fight to define the pipeline battle as competing values of human and Native American rights versus the rule of law, environmental protection versus public safety. Pipeline opponents fear a spill would pollute waterways and say construction would desecrate lands tribes hold as sacred. 

The explosion that injured Wilansky occurred during a 10-hour clash at the Backwater Bridge near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The standoff began around sundown Nov. 20 and continued past 4 a.m. the next day. Each side, police and protesters, portrayed the other as dangerous and violent.  

Videos showed white trails of smoke, showers of orange sparks, and clouds of tear gas hanging overhead as protesters chanted “Water is life” amid urgent shouting for medical assistance. 

“It was a war zone,” Graywolf, 71, Southern California director of the American Indian Movement, said days later. Police, standing behind concrete barriers and looping razor wire, launched tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and beanbag and sponge rounds, and drenched protesters with fire hoses in the subfreezing temperatures.

“These are the types of things more typical of trench warfare, not protests,” said Noah Morris, who treated the injured as a member of the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council. Medics treated more than 300 “water protectors,” he said. Twenty-six were sent to hospitals. Wilansky was air-evacuated to Minneapolis.

Police portray themselves as the victims of a “calculated effort” by protesters to ”cause harm,” saying demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails and other objects at them. The self-proclaimed “water protectors” denied this, though some did throw bottles, and in at least one case a demonstrator picked up a smoking tear gas canister and hurled it back at the police line.

In recent weeks police have consistently portrayed the protesters as rioters, a description repeated on nightly newscasts and by local talk radio hosts, who also have begun to use the label “terrorist.” 

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, North Dakota authorities issued a “code red alert” warning the public “to be on alert to any suspicious activity.… Rioters in the area are intent on creating an unsafe environment for the public.”

The portrayal seems to be effective in the largely white towns of Bismarck and Mandan, where an estimated 1,000 residents met Saturday morning on a bridge over the Missouri River to pledge their support for law enforcement.

Over the last few months, largely peaceful protesters have squared off against hundreds of militarized police wearing riot helmets and flanking military equipment designed to absorb roadside explosions in Iraq. In recent weeks, outside observers have underscored a frequent protest chant: “The world is watching.”

Earlier this month, the United Nations called on the U.S. “to take urgent action on the alarming situation in North Dakota, including the criminalization of indigenous peoples in their peaceful attempts to safeguard their human rights and fundamental rights.”

And last week Amnesty International alerted Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier of a new “delegation of observers to North Dakota to monitor the handling of the protests,” reminding him to “take all measures needed to ensure that the treatment of demonstrators is in accordance with international human rights standards and the U.S. Constitution.”

The protesters say the use of hoses, and earlier, of dogs from the pipeline company’s security team attacking water protectors, evoke images of the Deep South from decades ago. 

“It’s like the freedom marches of the 1960s,” said Strong Young Pony, 43, a member of the Chiricahua band of the Apache Nation in Arizona who worked on the triage team during Sunday’s clashes.

Last week in the main Oceti Sakowin camp, which has swelled in recent weeks to more than 5,000 Native people and their supporters, traumatized demonstrators showed swollen hands and deep purple bruises suffered from the many rubber bullets fired by police. Medics reported seeing injuries to protesters’ faces, thighs and groin areas.

Police, however, accuse pipeline opponents of manufacturing stories in an effort to bring more sympathy to their cause — like their account of an incident involving a private security company’s guard dog. The story of “the 4-year-old girl being bit by a dog was not true,” Kirchmeier said in a heated October discussion with camp coordinator Mekasi Camp-Horinek.

Camp-Horninek, in turn, asked Kirchmeier why he “went on TV and said we had pipe bombs — that wasn’t true.” Kirchmeier acknowledged the pipe bomb allegation was incorrect, blaming it on bad intelligence. 

It turned out the “weapons” were actually ceremonial pipes, according to Angela Bibens, lead attorney for the camp’s Red Owl Legal Collective. “This is a profound cultural misinterpretation of what are chanupas, or peace pipes. These are sacred ceremonial objects.”

On at least two occasions, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department has alleged that demonstrators were carrying bows and arrows, only to acknowledge later that this also was not true. 

Now the battle rages over the circumstances surrounding the gruesome injury to Wilansky, 21, a recent graduate of Williams College.

In an emotional news conference outside a Minnesota hospital on Tuesday, her father, Wayne Wilansky, unequivocally blamed police for his daughter’s injury. “Intentionally an officer threw a grenade that exploded right as it hit her forearm,” said Wilansky, who said his daughter told him she saw police throw a device at her. “This is not Afghanistan; it’s not Iraq.  We don’t throw grenades at people.”

A trauma surgeon and advocate for the protesters who saw photographs of Wilansky’s injury said they contradicted the police account of what happened. The photographs show “no evidence of any charring of the flesh or burnt clothing that would indicate an explosive device such as a propane canister,” said Dr. Jesse Lopez, a physician of Heartland Surgical Care in Leawood, Kan., and a periodic volunteer with the Medic and Healer Council.

Police have vehemently denied their equipment caused her injury.

“The injuries sustained are inconsistent with any resources utilized by law enforcement and are not a direct result of any tools or weapons used by law enforcement,” said North Dakota Highway Patrol Lt. Tom Iverson.

Yet in separate interviews, nearly a dozen pipeline protesters described the bright flashes, loud reports and concussive airwaves they believe indicated concussion grenades.

“It’s kind of like you come into a vacuum,” said Strong Young Pony. “You’re standing still and then you have a shock wave — a movement of a wave, like a ghost — someone walking past you that you can’t see,” he said.

Another protester, Efrain Montalvo, 25, a representative of the International Indigenous Youth Council, said bright flashes left him temporarily blind. “It’s like a white light, but then it makes you shiver,” he said. “You just don't really know where you are.” He described having what he called a seizure, lying prone while convulsing for 10 minutes.

A Morton County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, Rob Keller, wrote in an email that the department does not use or possess concussion or flash-bang grenades. “Our law enforcement ONLY deployed less than lethal munitions,” he wrote. 

North Dakota officials suggest instead that it was protesters who rigged “one-pound propane cylinders as explosives.” Officials said they recovered three of the cylinders. 

Sophia Wilansky, meanwhile, faces a grueling road to recovery, even if she does not lose her arm. Her father says she may not ever recover full use of it. She faces up to 20 surgeries in the coming months.

As she heals, protests will undoubtedly continue and, with them, the possibility of more clashes. 

On Friday the Army Corps of Engineers ordered that the main camp be evacuated by Dec. 5. The water protectors already are saying they will not agree to this. 

Tolan is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

1:05 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Dr. Jesse Lopez on the nature of Sophia Wilansky’s injuries.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

A previous version of this article referred to the Chiricahua Apache Nation. It should be the Chiricahua band of the Apache Nation. Also, one of the protesters' names was incorrect. It should be Efrain Montalvo, not Efrain Mobles.

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