Ronan native uses photojournalism to reveal Native stories - InfoNews

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Ronan native uses photojournalism to reveal Native stories

Photojournalist Tailyr Irvine poses for a portrait in Missoula, Mont., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. Irvine has been working on a project on blood quantum requirements for tribal enrollment in Native communities across the country that was recently published by the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, reaching an international audience and garnering attention on social media. (Tom Bauer/The Missoulian via AP)
August 15, 2020 - 5:11 AM

MISSOULA, Mont. - When Tailyr Irvine applied for funding to tell a story her community on the Flathead Reservation, and Native communities across the country, had been living with for more than a century, she thought she’d maybe get one response to get her project off the ground.

Instead, she heard back from both global media titans she pitched to, National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute, who wanted her work.

The first installment of Irvine’s project on blood quantum requirements for tribal enrolment was recently published by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian through its “Developing Stories: Native Photographers in the Field” series, reaching an international audience and garnering attention on social media.

“Reservation Mathematics: Navigating Love in Native America,” a photo essay, tells the story of how the blood quantum system affects everything from dating to health care to who you choose to marry and have children with. A blood quantum is a fraction that Native Americans get assigned at birth showing how much Native blood from a specific tribe they have. The fraction is used to determine enrolment, and many tribes require a certain amount of blood to be a member.

“This story has been in my brain for a really long time,” Irvine told the Missoulian in a recent interview in Missoula. The University of Montana graduate has been working on the project for a year and a half and said she’s proud to have a story Native Americans have been grappling with for decades reach a wider audience.

“It shows the complexities of Native life outside of the stereotypes you see, and I think that’s what I really am excited about with this project,” she said. “It lines up with my goal to show Native Americans in a contemporary sense.”

Irvine grew up in Ronan on the Flathead Reservation surrounded by her extended family.

“It’s a small community, so I really liked growing up the way I did, where everyone knows everyone and everyone kind of raises each other,” she said.

It wasn’t until she left the reservation to attend Washington State University that she realized her people were often misrepresented.

“I was the only Native on my dorm room floor, I was the only Native some people had ever met in their life, and it was just a really big culture shock for me,” she said. “It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized, oh wow, no one thinks Natives exist, and that’s because no one sees them, and when they do, it’s like poor and alcohol addicted … that’s not really what I grew up around, and so it’s kind of pushed me to how I cover tribal communities and why I cover them.”

After a tough semester, she returned to the reservation and eventually decided to go to UM.

She applied to the journalism program, where she realized she could actually effect change for her community and fill a gap in storytelling with her real-world perspective.

In September 2016, after seeing Native friends on social media posting rumblings around growing protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Reservation, she questioned why it wasn’t getting more widespread attention outside the Native community.

“I’d been hearing about this thing, and I hadn’t seen a lot in the media about it yet, so I just wanted to check it out,” she said, adding she visited three times to report and photograph, each time the media presence growing.

“That was the first time I really felt like a journalist I think, and I felt like my viewpoint mattered and that it mattered maybe more than other journalists there.”

While most of the nation was getting fed reports of violence and protest, Irvine spent her time telling a different story.

“(It was) less about the protest and the dog biting and all the violence that you’ve seen a lot, and it was more about, what does life look like in a camp that you’ve been staying at for six months? What did the schools look like?” she said.

Through college and after graduating in 2018, Irvine spent time at daily newspapers, including the Flathead Reservation’s Char-Koosta News, where she said she was able to “cut her teeth” in her own community, The Billings Gazette, the Dallas Morning News and finally the Tampa Bay Times.

Last year, after layoffs decimated the photo staff in Tampa Bay, she decided to take what many would consider a giant leap early in her career and go freelance.

“Daily jobs at newspapers don’t really feel that safe anymore, so it wasn’t super hard to leave. When I started, there were 20-something photographers, and when I left they were in the single digits,” she said, adding the daily grind also didn’t allow her to do the bigger, in-depth projects she got a glimpse of at Standing Rock. “I really wanted to tell my own stories.”

It also didn’t hurt that ESPN had been in contact with her about taking photos for a story on the Blackfeet Reservation. Her images appeared in an article about the sports network’s documentary, “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible,” which screened at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

During the same period, she met Daniella Zalcman, founder of Women Photograph and co-founder of Natives Photograph, organizations that create databases of women, nonbinary and Native American photographers.

“She really created a pipeline for me to come from Montana and go into the national scene with photography and editors,” Irvine said.

Zalcman said the Natives Photograph database is an effort to help elevate voices of Native storytellers working in their own communities. It’s also a response to editors claiming they want to hire Native photographers, but don’t know who or where they are.

“Photojournalism is a tricky business to get into, it’s a tricky business to sustain once you’re in it,” Zalcman said. “It’s still a very privileged, classist industry where so much of success is predicated on who you know.”

Irvine said Zalcman has since been a mentor, helping her navigate the beginnings of a freelance career — reading fine print contracts from big-wig corporate lawyers and filing taxes.

Introducing the issue of blood quantum to people outside of Native communities would be difficult without a direct understanding like Irvine has, Zalcman said.

“It’s a complicated thing with roots in colonialism and ramifications that we’re seeing still today. There’s so many levels, it requires such a degree of care, nuance and context,” she said. “Tailyr is perfect for it because she deeply understands the system, she can tackle all aspects, and she’s also telling it from such a personal perspective as well.”

With the first chapter published, Irvine is now working on a second chapter with funding from National Geographic.

Her decision to go freelance has paid off. Her work has been published with HuffPost, Buzzfeed, High Country News, The Washington Post and The New York Times.

She’s also currently reporting a Nat Geo-funded project that’s taken her across the country, photographing Native Americans participating in a nationwide “Social Distance Powwow,” and another article about COVID-19 in the national parks is also in the works.

She also loves shooting sports and sprinkles in those assignments when she has time. She understandably doesn’t want to get pigeon-holed into only getting calls for Native assignments, but said she hopes she can continue to cover Native issues and culture so she can start to shift the narrative around her people.

“How I grew up and what that looked like for me looks really different in the media,” she said. “It’s my story, but it’s not really my story. It’s their story.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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