National Geographic magazine and the Eskimo stereotype: a photographic analysis, 1949–1990

Robert P. Wheelersburg, Elizabethtown College


The origins of the ‘Eskimo stereotype’ found in the consciousness of today’s American students are explored, tracing its specific elements such as wearing traditional clothing and hunting sea mammals to Robert Peary’s Arctic exploration. Peary’s exploits were followed closely by an eager public reading about the journeys in popular media such as newspapers and magazines, who were especially captivated by his Polar Eskimo companions. National Geographic magazine is hypothesized to have contributed to the Eskimo stereotype by publishing photographs through four decades that continued the traditional themes and activities contained in Peary’s original dispatches. To test that hypothesis, the author evaluated National Geographic photographs from 1949 through 1990 for components of the North American Arctic stereotype begun by Peary, assessing 30% of the nearly 400 Eskimo photographs contained in the magazine during the study period for thematic elements and activities. The results suggested that National Geographic portrayed Eskimos similarly throughout the study period, concentrating more on traditional than modern behaviors. The influence of the Society’s conservative editorial leadership that sought to present its members with more exotic elements of indigenous cultures is considered a primary contributing factor to the magazine continuing the Eskimo stereotype.