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National Geographic addresses inclusion but has further to go on Native representation.

 

Indian Country News is a weekly note from High Country News, as we continue to broaden our coverage of tribal affairs across the West.

The current issue of National Geographic was designed around a central theme: the fact that for more than a century the popular magazine has failed in its coverage of people of color and was at times openly racist in portrayals of non-white cultures.

University of Virginia historian John Edwin Mason, who studies the intersection of photography and African-American history, reviewed the magazine’s archives. Mason told NPR that in his review, a hierarchy emerged.

“And that hierarchy was very clear, in the writing and the photography, that the West, and especially the English-speaking world, was at the top of the hierarchy, and black and brown people were somewhere underneath,” he said.

Mason also found that the magazine all but ignored people of color in the U.S. until the 1970s. In a letter to readers in the race issue, Susan Goldberg, National Geographic’s first female editor-in-chief and first Jewish editor-in-chief, announced the magazine will be taking on the issue of race over the next year. Granted, this work is still being done by a largely white staff, but Goldberg said the magazine is hoping to take on this issue as well.

That’s an important step. Until newsrooms are more reflective of the country’s shifting demographics, their coverage will lack a diverse perspective. (High Country News is grappling with similar issues. You can see our staff page here and our board of directors here.)

“If you’re going to continue to adopt a journalistic stance that’s predicated on objectivity, then you’re not going to be able to recognize the ways in which your coverage is still problematic,” Candis Callison, associate professor at The University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, said on a recent episode of the “Media Indigena” podcast. A newsroom can claim it wants to be objective, in other words, but if that newsroom is overwhelmingly white, chances are it still lacks a deeper understanding of any community of color it attempts to cover.

A collection of National Geographic's covers displayed on a wall in the National Geographic Museum.

“(National Geographic) called their reporters ‘explorers’ for heaven’s sake,” Kim Tallbear, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said on the podcast, noting how nakedly the magazine has incorporated othering.

National Geographic has known about this problem for much longer than Goldberg’s tenure. As John Coward, a University of Tulsa professor and author of two books on Native American representation in popular media, told me, the 1993 book Reading National Geographic detailed many of the magazine’s problems with race. “So even though the magazine, its editors and photographers were aware of these issues in 1993, it took until 2018 for the criticism to sink in and warrant a response,” he said. “What took National Geographic so long?”

The invisibility of Indigenous peoples compounds the problem for reporting on Indian Country, where well-intentioned, non-Native reporters often still employ stereotypes. “Indian images are everywhere in popular culture, but Native Americans as real people living in America today are often overlooked and ignored,” Coward added. “This situation may be improving, but as the National Geographic example shows, progress is very slow.”

National Geographic’s opening issue on race had no stories on Indigenous peoples. In an online piece explaining the issue and the magazine’s promise of more coverage of race and identity, Debra Adams Simmons, the magazine’s executive editor for culture, made the sole reference to Native Americans.

“Later we will explore Latinos’ growing political and cultural influence as they’ve become the largest minority group in the United States,” wrote Simmons, who is African-American. “We will examine the role of South Asians in medicine, technology, and business as well as American culture at large, and we’ll revisit some of the 120,000 Japanese U.S. citizens who were incarcerated during World War II. We also will explore how culture is being redefined in Native American life.”

National Geographic is certainly not alone in its lack of representation of Native Americans. As I mentioned, newsrooms across the country are not reflective of the communities they cover. A recent internal study by NPR found an abysmal 0.3 percent of its staff is Native American. In a similar breakdown of its staff by the New York Times, Native Americans were not even represented by a category. Such disparities can lead to racially offensive pieces like the obituary the paper ran for Dennis Banks, a founding member of the American Indian Movement, which drew attention to Banks’ “high cheekbones” and had a headline calling him a member of the “country’s oldest minority.”

That isn’t to say there are not writers at those organizations who cover Indigenous issues very well or that they do not offer work to Native reporters. Julie Turkewitz, who was recently promoted to the Times’ national desk, has consistently done thoughtful work from Indian Country, even giving Native writers their own platform to talk about Thanksgiving. The Times’ coverage of an Indigenous roller derby team was also very well done. The depth and insight of NPR’s Code Switch team on a variety of race and identity issues, including Indigenous, is consistently impressive. And NPR recently produced a series on Native American discrimination, which I contributed to.

National Geographic’s admission and the current issue (problematic as it may be) is a step in the right direction. I’m encouraged to see that other national outlets are making efforts to better cover Indian Country, giving more thought to representation and historical context. My job as contributing editor on High Country News’ tribal affairs desk, perhaps one of the only such desks at a non-Native publication, is one example. One of our goals on the desk is to employ and empower Indigenous writers and editors.

To that end, I’m happy to announce that in mid-June, Tristan Ahtone, a citizen of the Kiowa Tribe and a contributing editor on our team, will be signing on full-time to lead our tribal affairs coverage as an associate editor for High Country News. We’re excited to add his dedication to nuanced, high-quality coverage of Indigenous issues to the desk. There’s no doubt that Ahtone’s upbringing as a member of the Kiowa Tribe plays an important role in his ability to cover these issues. And that’s why newsrooms need to diversify, not for the sake of “diversity” itself, but to better reflect our changing society, for the betterment of all.

Wado.

Graham Lee Brewer is a contributing editor at High Country News and a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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