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Salish and Kootenai Photographer's Work Featured By Smithsonian

In Ronan, Montana.
Tailyr Irvine
In Ronan, Montana.

Dating in small-town Montana can be tough. For Native Americans, a government-imposed tribal enrollment system dating back to the 1900's has made the dating pool even more complicated.

Salish and Kootenai photojournalist Tailyr Irvine explores the ties and binds of love and identity in “Reservation Mathematics,” an exhibit showing at the Smithsonian through October. The 2019 National Geographic Explorer and We, Women artist spoke with YPR News' Kaitlyn Nicholas about her exhibit and work.

Kaitlyn Nicholas I wanted to talk to you today because of your exhibit, “Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America.”

On your website, you describe the project as an exploration of “the different ways blood quantum requirements impact tribal members’ relationships and lives through the voices of Native individuals and families in Western Montana.”

We probably have to start with a very basic question: what is blood quantum?

Tailyr Irvine In short, blood quantum is a system to measure Native blood.

And it's a colonial system from the early 1900's where government officials decided who was Native and who was not Native. They are issued a fraction at birth of how much blood quantum, or Native blood that they have.

So, for example, my mom is Crow and my dad is Salish and Kootenai. You can only choose one tribe to enroll in. You can only have blood quantum from one tribe. So, my parents chose the Flathead blood because that's where we lived on the reservation there, and that's where I was gonna grow up.

And so right away, my Nativeness was cut in half, just to choose one.

Nicholas What motivated you to create this series?

Irvine Blood quantum is something that I've always grown up with because my parents are from two different tribes.

I knew that I had to date someone from my tribe to have my kid enrolled, because I don't have enough blood on my own. My dad is 29/32. So he's almost full blood but not quite. So I'm seven sixteenths, which means almost half, but not quite. But I would need to be half, to have my kid be enrolled.

And so from a young age, I knew that if I wanted my child would be enrolled in my tribe. I would have to date someone from my tribe. I think as I got older, I started questioning that a little more. Like, that's kind of super weird.

And the more I talked about it with friends about how trapped it made you feel. Because it's such a small community and you’re related to everyone, and if you're not related to them, you know them forever or someone else you know has dated them.

It's such a weird situation to be put into, and I think that's where this project came from for me, is questioning why.

Nicholas What were you thinking about when you were composing these images or writing the words that would go along with each piece?

Irvine I was trying to figure out how to photograph something that doesn't exist, because blood quantum is a made up number.

It's not something that tribes put on themselves: Tribes historically intermarried. It’s just this fake number that the government gave tribes over a hundred years ago and that we still use today.

It just so happened at the time I started the beginning of this project, my brother and his partner announced that they were expecting a baby. And that's when I kind of was like, “Oh, this would be perfect because it's a real life situation of how blood quantum plays out.”

Like my brother is in the same boat as I am, he needed to find a tribal member from our tribe to have a kid with so his kid would be enrolled. But that’s not really how love works. He fell in love with Leah, and she's Navajo.

And now they have a baby who's not enough blood to be enrolled in our tribe and it's instead enrolled in the tribe that the child's probably not going to really know much about because the mother is not involved in that tribe.

And then, my other sister said that she was pregnant, too. They were both due in October. And my sister had a child with another enrolled member, and so that was kind of perfect to see what happens when you do?

What happens if you don't? What are the benefits of both? What are the consequences of both?

Nicholas I mean, you have several different individuals and couples that are grappling with this issue in different ways. Was there a lot of interest? Were people hesitant about getting involved?

Irvine This is something that's always been around. This is not like a new problem.

The thing that's new now is that it's coming to a head finally, because it's not sustainable.

And we're seeing that with my generation now, where kids my age need to have children with members or they're not going to have members, and that leads to a decline in membership.

It was really natural to be down to people, and they were pretty comfortable talking about it because that's something that we talk about all the time.

Nicholas As you were documenting these couples and families, were there any common themes that you've found, or surprises?

Irvine I think what's unique about each story is I'd asked everyone, “Well, if not blood quantum, then what system should we replace it with? Because if we don't use this, then what do we use to determine membership?”

That's why I wanted to have a diverse group with diverse opinions. The most interesting thing is that no one can agree on what to replace it with. Some people suggested like we should take a cultural test – like a citizen test – to be enrolled.

And some other people highlighted, “But what if you're adopted and you can't take that test? You're adopted out to a white family but you're still Native?”

It kind of just boiled down to identity and what makes someone Native? And who says? And how people deal with an identity that's become so politicized. It's not only a race, but it's also a legal status.

Nicholas What are you focusing on next? What are you hoping to do?

Irvine This series is going to be a long series. This is just the first chapter of what I want to do.

I'm continuing with funding from National Geographic and from We, Women to expand it into more of the before the family part, the actual dating. And tell it story-wise that way.

Nicholas That struck me as a really interesting component. It's just so much to handle, dating's already complicated enough.

Irvine That's like the point, for me, is that dating is tough, and that's universal for everyone. Dating is hard enough without adding blood quantum into the mix.

The goal with my project is to talk about this really complex system, but also make it relatable because everyone dates and everyone falls in love. Getting pressure from your parents to date within your culture isn't something inherently Native, cross-cultural people feel that everywhere.

Getting people to relate on that level, and then using that to dive in and teaching them about something they don't quite know about is my goal with the work coming up.

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