Reservation Mathematics:
Navigating Love in Native America

Tailyr Irvine

Blood quantum requirements for tribal enrollment pose many challenges for Native Americans. The concept of using so-called “blood quantum”—or amount of tribal affiliation in a person’s ancestry—to determine tribal enrollment eligibility has no basis in Native American traditions. In early 1900s, the U.S. government began imposing this system on tribes as a means of defining and limiting citizenship. While some tribes still use this method for determining eligibility for tribal enrollment, other Native nations use documentation of a person’s descent from an enrollee on a designated tribal roll or census records.

Many scholars argue that blood quantum requirements were calculated to reduce tribal enrollment over time. Moreover, they call attention to the U.S. government’s detrimental use of the term “blood quantum” during the 19th century and early 20th century to associate a Native person’s level of intelligence with their supposed amount of Native versus Euro-American or other blood.

For Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America, photojournalist Tailyr Irvine interviewed Indigenous residents in Missoula and on her Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. They share their deep personal, social and political concerns about the blood quantum system, which can impact Native Americans’ most personal decisions—including with whom they have children. Through seven intimate stories, Irvine shows how blood quantum requirements are increasingly putting pressures on Native Americans’ lives.

All images courtesy and copyright of Tailyr Irvine.

Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson Hold a Sonogram of Their Unborn Baby

Many Native Americans are facing great challenges in choosing partners today. In part, these pressures stem from U.S. government regulations that determine who is “Indian” and influence tribal enrollment requirements. For those American Indians who wish to have children and enroll them in their own tribes, such definitions can sway who they choose as their partners. Native parents such as Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson (here holding a sonogram of their unborn baby) know these regulations will affect their children in a myriad of ways throughout their lives.

What is Blood Quantum?

The notion of “blood quantum” sprang from U.S. colonial and racial biases. Non-Native people devised this way to define Native American identity by degree of affiliation to a tribe in their family ancestry. For example, if a person has ancestors who all descended from one American Indian tribe and has a child with someone who is not a member of that tribe, their child would have a blood quantum of 1⁄2. If this child grows up and becomes a parent with someone who is not a citizen of his or her tribe, their offspring would have a blood quantum of 1⁄4. For those tribes that use blood quantum as a criterion for tribal enrollment, the minimum blood quantum requirements vary and have ranged from 1⁄2 to 1⁄16.

Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson

When this image was captured in November 2019, Michael Irvine, 22, and his partner, Leah Nelson, 21, were awaiting the birth of their first child, a daughter. They chose to raise their family on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and where Michael grew up and where they both currently reside.

Irvine, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, has a blood quantum of 7⁄16. Nelson, a member of the Navajo Nation, has a blood quantum of 3⁄4. Because Irvine’s tribes require 1⁄4 Salish and Kootenai blood for enrollment, their child will not qualify to be a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and will be enrolled in the Navajo Nation.

Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson Share a Quiet Moment at Home

On October 19, 2019, Leah Nelson’s due date is only a week away, so she and her partner, Michael Irvine, spend a quiet evening in their living room. Until recently, their home was one of the many houses on the Flathead Indian Reservation that are in trust with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. If a house is in tribal trust, only a tribal member can legally own the home and so neither Nelson nor their child would be allowed to live in one without Irvine.

Nizhóní Ajéí Irvine Wrapped in Her Salish Bag

Nizhóní Ajéí Irvine was born in November 2019. Her first and middle names are the Navajo words for “beautiful” and “my heart,” respectively. As is her mother, Nizhóní will be enrolled in the Navajo Tribe, whose reservation is located in the Southwest, more than 1,000 miles from the Flathead Indian Reservation where the family lives. Here, she will grow up and learn Salish culture and traditions from her father.

Reviewing Nizhóní Irvine’s Paternal Family Tree

On December 9, 2019, Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson look at their daughter Nizhóní Irvine’s paternal family tree, printed at the tribal Enrollment Office. The document shows the blood quantum of each of Irvine’s Salish and Kootenai family members from the 1800s to the present—and that Nizhóní is 3⁄128 short of being able to be enrolled in his tribe. A memorandum states Nizhóní is designated a first-generation descendant—but not a member—of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This classification will limit her participation in the tribes’ services, such as financial aid for college and tribal employment opportunities.

“It sucks that I’m 1⁄16 short of having Nizhóní enrolled here,” says Michael Irvine. “She’s Native, Salish and Kootenai, and living on our reservation. Eventually she’s going to ask why she’s not a member when her cousins and family are.”

Michael Irvine Hunts on the Flathead Indian Reservation

Michael Irvine hunts to feed his family and donates meat for funerals and tribal events. His father taught him where to hunt on tribal land, what trails to follow, and how to shoot and dress an animal. Learning these skills from his father is among Irvine’s most cherished memories, he says.

As only members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are allowed to hunt on the Flathead Indian Reservation, once his daughter Nizhóní Irvine is an adult, she will not be able to accompany her father on his hunts. “I wanted her to participate in the things I did growing up,” says Michael. “I’m going to teach her our culture, and she’s going to learn from me when we go hunting. But not being able to hunt on tribal land after she turns 18 means she can’t put into practice what she learns in our own home,” he says. “That is how traditions die.”

Leah Nelson Brings Her Daughter into the Woods for the First Time

As a young descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Nizhóní Irvine is allowed in the tribes’ woods without a permit. However, as she is not enrolled in the tribe, after she turns 18 years old Nizhóní will need a permit each time she wishes to access the same outdoor recreational spaces without her father.

Her mother, Leah Nelson, describes the relationship between Native culture and access to tribal land: “I didn’t get to experience my culture because I did not live on my Navajo reservation. There are ceremonies I can’t learn because I wasn’t raised there.” She says she wants her daughter to have that connection. “We live here, and it’s important to me that she participates in the culture here so she knows where she comes from and who she is. Everything we do is outside because I want to show her our home.”

Tiana Antoine and Nathan Drennan

Tiana Antoine, 25, and Nathan Drennan, 28, are both tribal members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. They began dating in July 2017, and are living on the Flathead Indian Reservation. To be an enrolled member of the tribes, an individual must have 1⁄4 of Salish and Kootenai blood. With a blood quantum of 113⁄128, Antoine has enough to enroll her child in the tribes regardless of her partner’s race. Drennan, however, is only 1⁄4 Salish and Kootenai and so chose to date only women from his tribe. “I wanted my kid to be enrolled for cultural reasons,” he says.

Tiana Antoine and Nathan Drennan with Niece Azelin Swimmer

Nathan Drennan and Tiana Antoine, who is seven months pregnant in this photo, relax on the couch with Antoine’s three-year-old niece Azelin Swimmer. The couple has raised the girl since she was a year old. Drennan says he only dated Kootenai women because he thinks they make the best mothers and admires their strength. He also feels it’s important to preserve their heritage and believes it’s necessary for his children to be enrolled in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to do that. At the beginning of their relationship, Antoine and Drennan went to the tribe’s enrollment office to obtain a copy of their genealogical records to make sure they were not related.

Tiana Antoine with Her Daughters, Mar’rah and Prairie

Eleven-year-old Mar’rah Friedlander is Tiana Antoine’s daughter from a previous relationship. Friedlander’s blood quantum, 113⁄256, currently only reflects the amount of tribal blood she obtained from her mother. Her total amount is actually higher because her biological father is also enrolled. Friedlander will need to file paperwork to add her biological father’s blood to her quantum if in the future she wants to have children and enroll them. As of now, Friedlander’s children would be 15⁄512 short of enrollment.

Paperwork correction is common. One correction affects every subsequent generation’s blood quantum. In 2009, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes enrollment rose 3.4 percent after a correction was found, resulting in 246 new enrollments that year compared to just 55 the previous year. Prairie Antoine was born in October 2019. At that time, she was one of the 8,086 Confederated Salish and Kootenai enrolled tribal members.

Prairie Cocowee Antoine, Wrapped in a Cradleboard

Prairie Cocowee Antoine’s maternal grandmother made her this cradleboard. Prairie’s middle name, Cocowee, is the original last name of her mother’s family before in the early 1800s a Jesuit priest changed a relative’s first name to Antoine, which his children adopted as their last name. Her parents, Tiana Antoine and Nathan Drennan, decided that Prairie’s last name should be Antoine because they wanted their daughter’s name to reflect her family history; Drennan is the name of Nathan’s adopted mother and doesn’t reflect Salish and Kootenai culture.

At the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Enrollment Office

Tiana Antoine took her newborn daughter, Prairie, to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Enrollment Office to receive her enrollment card, also known as a Tribal ID. On each card is the tribal member’s photo, enrollment ID number, and blood quantum, indicated by a fraction. The ID is an official documentation of enrollment status and is needed to complete paperwork that requires proof of American Indian status, such as applications for federal student aid, health care benefits, and tribal housing.

Cole Moran and Brandy Koivu

High school students Cole Moran and Brandy Koivu—both 15 years old and living on the Flathead Indian Reservation—began dating in November 2019. Moran is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes with a blood quantum of 3⁄4, and Koivu identifies as Caucasian. Moran says he first became aware of blood quantum in elementary school, when his cousins compared their individual blood quantum to those of him and his brother.

Cole Moran and Brandy Koivu Playing Video Games

Moran says when he gets older, dating other tribal members may be more important to him to keep his culture alive. He is faced with less pressure to partner with another member of his tribe than some other young Native Americans, however, because he can enroll his child from his blood quantum alone. “I’ve never felt pressure from my family,” he says. “My mom says I don’t have to worry about this.”

Marley Tanner

Twenty-six-year-old Marley Tanner is 1⁄4 Salish and Kootenai, 1⁄2 Northern Arapaho, and 1⁄4 Finnish. He is enrolled in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and grew up on their Flathead Indian Reservation. He now lives in Missoula, Montana. Tanner chooses not to date other American Indians despite pressure from his family to have Native children. “I’ve never dated any Natives in my tribe because you don’t know who is your cousin. I don’t want to ask my parents if I’m related to so-and-so because then they would know my business.” Besides, says Tanner, “blood quantum isn’t how I identify. I don’t tell people ‘I’m a quarter Native.’ I’m Native. I know my heritage, and I don’t base it off of blood quantum.”

Marley Tanner’s Dating Profile and Tribal ID Card

Tanner meets people the way a lot of people today do—through dating apps. “Even as a gay man,” he says he feels “pressure to date only Natives and have an enrolled child.” He says dating nonmembers has a stigma, and he feels pressure to continue tribal bloodlines. “Those are the things that keep me up at night,” he says.

D’Shane Barnett and Jason Begay

D’Shane Barnett and Jason Begay, both 43 and living in Missoula, began dating in 2018. Barnett is a 7⁄32 member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, and Begay is a full-blooded member of the Navajo Nation. Both men agree that how a child is raised and what experiences the child has defines his or her Native identity—not blood quantum.

Barnett works in the Indian health care field and says he has seen the flaws with the blood quantum system. “I had a friend whose daughter was 3⁄4 Native but 1⁄8 of six different tribes, and none of those tribes would let her be enrolled,” he says. “She would not qualify for the same health services that I do. That’s ridiculous.”

Both Barnett and Begay describe blood quantum as a tool the federal government uses to complete the genocide of Native people. Begay says, “The math can be sinister.”

Zachary Wagner

Zachary Wagner, 26, is 27⁄64 Northern Cheyenne, but he is also Blackfeet and grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. He now lives in Missoula. He says, “I consider myself culturally Blackfeet, but I don’t get a say in my tribe because I’m enrolled Cheyenne.”

While Wagner didn’t think about blood quantum when he was younger, he says he is probably going to marry a Blackfeet tribal member “so I can have my kids enrolled there and so they can have a say,” he says. “That’s me playing into the system.” Yet finding a Blackfeet partner will be challenging. He says, “My Blackfeet family is huge. To find a single, enrolled Blackfeet woman who is not my cousin and my age is really unlikely.”

Zachary Wagner’s Tribal ID Card and Tattoo

Wagner says any children he has will be Indian because he’s Indian and he would raise them in his culture, so their identity wouldn’t be determined by their Indian ID card. However, that card opens up a lot of doors, and so he feels pressured to find a Native partner. “I feel trapped because it limits who I would consider marrying,” he says. “I want my kids to have the option to be leaders in their tribe, and unfortunately if they are not enrolled, they can’t participate in the tribal political system.”

Who he is, Wagner says, is as clear as his Indigenous tattoo: “When people ask what I am, I can show them my arm.” He says basing tribal identity and enrollment on blood quantum is unsustainable. “Tribes have historically always been mixed. The concept of full blood needs to go out the door. It doesn’t exist.”

Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council Member Ellie Bundy-McLeod

Ellie Bundy-McLeod, 47, serves on the Tribal Council for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. She expects blood quantum is an issue that council members will have to address before her first term ends in 2024. Bundy-McLeod says that one’s lineage makes one Native, not one’s blood quantum. She adds that before colonization of what is now the United States, if an Indian fathered or gave birth to a child, then that child was an Indian. Bundy-McLeod says that the U.S. government-imposed system of “blood quantum is designed to get rid of the tribes.” She says, “We can’t keep marrying within the tribe. People need to marry outside, but that weakens bloodlines. Under this system when that happens, we’ll be gone, and that opens up all our resources. … We risk losing everything we fought so hard to keep.”

Ellie Bundy-McLeod’s Tribal ID Card

If her tribes’ members wanted to change or even eliminate blood quantum requirements, Ellie Bundy-McLeod says she would be open to discussing these options. However, the process would involve the Tribal Council examining tribal laws and educating the tribes’ members, who would have to vote about such drastic changes. “There are provisions for us to look at it in our constitution, and it needs to be a membership decision. There needs to be conversations and meetings, and professionals to come in and tell us how long our tribes can last on a blood quantum restriction,” she says. “I think fear of the unknown keeps tribes operating under this system. But quantum is just a number. It’s not scientific. It has nothing to do with who you are.”

Tailyr Irvine. Photo by Freddy Monares.

Photo by Freddy Monares

Tailyr Irvine

Tailyr Irvine is a Salish and Kootenai photojournalist born and raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. She graduated from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2018. Her work focuses on providing in-depth representations of the lives and complex issues within the diverse communities that make up Native America. Irvine worked in newsrooms across the United States before beginning her career as an independent photojournalist and documentary photographer in 2019.

Photographer’s Statement

My goal is to document the world around me. While I naturally gravitate toward topics involving my community, pursuing Indigenous narratives is not a conscious decision. To me, these aren’t Native stories; they are stories about my life.

As a child, I knew that because my father and mother were from different tribes, I would eventually have to navigate blood quantum requirements when I started dating. When I was older, I began to question the limitations put upon my partner choices, which led me to this project. While interviewing and photographing members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, I chose to include the voices of my siblings as they were each expecting a child who would be impacted by the blood quantum system. My siblings’ comments and those of the others in this story show contemporary views on a generations-old issue.

—Tailyr Irvine

Curator Interview with Tailyr Irvine

Interview transcript