Woman in iconic anti-fracking photo calls it a 'middle finger' to the industry

When Amanda Polchies decided to go to an anti-fracking protest near Rexton, N.B., in 2013, she didn't expect to become the subject of an image that would be seen around the world.
Journalist Ossie Michelin says this photo went viral within hours after he took it in 2013. (Ossie Michelin/APTN National News)

When Amanda Polchies decided to go to an anti-fracking protest near Rexton, N.B., in 2013, she didn't expect to become the subject of an image that would be seen around the world. 

Polchies said when she arrived, she saw elders being pepper-sprayed and handcuffed. She rushed to the front of the protest lines, standing beside a line of women just a few feet away from a line of police officers.

"None of these people had weapons and they were treated like criminals," Polchies said.

Holding that feather was kind of like a middle finger, really.- Amanda Polchies

At the time, RCMP spokeswoman Const. Jullie Rogers-Marsh said that no rubber bullets were used but that RCMP members used "sock rounds" — also known as bean bag rounds, which are a type of non-lethal ammunition — on two occasions during the clash in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Police said one round was fired and that Molotov cocktails were thrown at police, with at least five RCMP vehicles destroyed by fire.

As the line of RCMP officers advanced, Polchies got to her knees and prayed, holding up a single eagle feather.

"I was scared," Polchies said. She recalled being worried she would get hurt, but also remembered feeling bold and defiant.

"Holding that feather was kind of like a middle finger, really," she said. "It made me feel good and proud … and that there was nothing they could do about it."

A photo of that moment, taken by Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, was part of a national exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It was named best photograph in the museum's Points of View: A National Human Rights Photography Exhibition. 

Polchies said as she closed her eyes and prayed, she couldn't see what was happening

She was joined on the ground by a group of women who sat next to her and prayed. As police drew closer, they ordered the women to move back. Some got up, but Polchies and one other woman stayed.

The iconic photo inspired art from many artists, including this rendition from Fanny Aïshaa. (Submitted by Fanny Aïshaa)

'I was in shock'

After some time passed, Polchies opened her eyes to see no police in front of her, but moments later a couple of police officers rushed to arrest Polchies and the other woman beside her. 

"I got pushed on the ground and my head shoved into the cement," she said. "He just pushed me over and left me there and zip-tied my hands behind my back."

She didn't know anyone took any photos until the next day — but even then, it wasn't clear the photo would become so symbolic of the struggle between Indigenous sovereignty and natural resource development.

They don't have to know that it's me, but they know that somebody made a stand.- Amanda Polchies

"It really amazed me but at the same time, I was in shock."

"I never thought anything I would do would matter as big as it has, and for Ossie to take that picture and for people to connect with that picture, it was a lot."

Despite fear of being injured and the repercussions of being arrested, Polchies said she would do it again.

"In a heartbeat," she said. "I see how people connected with it and I see how it's changed people and how it's given people so many things, like hope and bravery.

"They don't have to know that it's me, but they know that somebody made a stand."