Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America
Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson (here holding a sonogram of their unborn baby)

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

Native parents such as Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson know “blood quantum” regulations affect their children in a myriad of ways throughout their lives.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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

Native parents such as Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson know “blood quantum” regulations affect their children in a myriad of ways throughout their lives.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson

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 ¾. Because Irvine’s tribes require ¼ 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.

Photo by Taiylr Irvine

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 ¾. Because Irvine’s tribes require ¼ 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.

Photo by Taiylr Irvine

Michael Irvine and Leah Nelson look at their daughter Nizhóní Irvine’s paternal family tree

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Leah Nelson bringing her daughter into the woods for first time

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Tiana Antoine and Nathan Drennan

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 ¼ 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 ¼ 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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 ¼ 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 ¼ 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Tiana Antoine with Her Daughter Mar'rah Friedlander

Tiana Antoine with Her Daughter Mar'rah

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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Tiana Antoine with Her Daughter Mar'rah

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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Tiana Antoine and daughter Prairie at the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Enrollment Office

At the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Enrollment Office

This past November, 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

At the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Enrollment Office

This past November, 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Prairie Antoine's Tribal ID

Prairie Antoine's Tribal ID Card

On each Tribal ID 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Prairie Antoine's Tribal ID Card

On each Tribal ID 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.

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Marley Tanner

Marley Tanner

Twenty-six-year-old Marley Tanner is ¼ Salish and Kootenai, ½ Northern Arapaho and ¼ 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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Marley Tanner

Twenty-six-year-old Marley Tanner is ¼ Salish and Kootenai, ½ Northern Arapaho and ¼ 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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Zachary Wagner

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

D’Shane Barnett and Jason Begay

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 ¾ 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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

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 ¾ 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.”

Photo by Tailyr Irvine

Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council Member Ellie Bundy-McLeod

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 to be 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 and 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.”

 

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 to be 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 and 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.”

 

See the entire “Reservation Mathematics” exhibition online at AmericanIndian.si.edu/developingstories beginning July 14.