Blood Quantum in Focus

Local photojournalist Tailyr Irvine was featured in Smithsonian virtual exhibition this summer and continues educating audiences about Indian Country

By Maggie Dresser
Nizhóní Ajéí Irvine in Ronan, Montana. Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Growing up in Ronan on the Flathead Indian Reservation, Tailyr Irvine, a local photojournalist and enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), knew at an early age she would have to marry someone in her own tribe if she wanted any future children to also be enrolled.

Since her dad is a Salish tribal member, while her mom is Crow, she only has a certain “blood quantum,” or amount of tribal affiliation that determines enrollment eligibility. And with only 8,000 CSKT members on the reservation, Irvine’s options would be reduced to about 10 people once all of her relatives were removed from the equation.

Blood quantum, which is a well-known concept among Native Americans, inspired Irvine to pursue a photo essay, “Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America,” detailing a variety of Native Americans who experience its impacts, which the Smithsonian Institution showcased in July.

“Growing up knowing that, it’s something I thought about a lot,” Irvine said. “And the more I thought about it, I questioned why it was even a thing, and that’s what led me to this project.”

The U.S. government introduced the concept of blood quantum in the early 1900s as a method to limit citizenship, and it’s still used today to determine a Native American’s enrollment eligibility. This process adds a whole new element to dating, Irvine said.

“It’s coming to a head because it’s not sustainable,” Irvine said. “You can only procreate until you end up breeding yourself out … this year was the first in almost 20 years that (CSKT) enrollment was down.”

“Reservation Mathematics” was originally planned to be an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. for 20 weeks, but it was put on hold due to the pandemic. In July, the Smithsonian published an online version, and the physical exhibition will eventually be shown once the museum reopens.

Tiana Antoine, 25, and Nathan Drennan, 28, are both tribal members of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Photo by Tailyr Irvine

While the first chapter of Irvine’s project primarily focused on the Flathead Indian Reservation and blood quantum’s impact on her tribe, she’s working on a second chapter with National Geographic tailored for print with a stronger emphasis on narrative.

Irvine will spend several months photographing specific relationships on reservations ranging from Idaho to South Dakota, documenting what American Indian dating looks like, how the younger generation is dating and if blood quantum plays a role.

“I’m following relationships in the second chapter,” Irvine said. “It’ll be a little more intimate … I’ll have more time with each subject as opposed to the first chapter, which was as diverse as possible.”

Following the “Reservation Mathematics” virtual exhibit, Irvine has received a lot of positive feedback along with surprise from nonnative people who were unaware of the tribal enrollment process.

“It’s something we haven’t talked about and it’s always nice to see issues from Indian Country in the forefront,” Irvine said. “Educating people on tribes is my goal.”

Educating audiences about Indian Country has become a central focus for Irvine in her career as a freelance photojournalist, and she’s kept busy even during the coronavirus pandemic. She’s about to start a new assignment documenting socially distanced powwows nationwide. She also recently finished teaching a virtual nine-day photo camp with National Geographic with other indigenous photographers around the globe.

To view “Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America,” visit

Correction: A previous version stated Irvine’s dad is Crow while her mom is Salish when her dad is in fact Salish while her mom is Crow. It also stated that Irvine was documenting socially distanced powwow in South Dakota when it’s actually nationwide.

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