I first heard about the Native Skeptic from Desiree Schell, the host of the Skeptically Speaking podcast. She mentioned a writer named Noah Nez who blogged about skepticism within the Native American community. In my roles with the Skeptical Inquirer magazine and the Skeptical Briefs, I have often tried to give voice to minority voices and perspectives in the skeptical community, and I was intrigued by Nez’s writings on his Web site, https://nativeskeptic.blogspot.com.
I contacted him to find out more about his work. Nez has been a columnist for the Skeptical Briefs, examining a variety of issues at the crossroads between science, skepticism, and Native American belief and cultures.
Skeptical Briefs: What’s your background, both personal and cultural?
Noah Nez: I was born on the Fort Apache reservation in a little town named Whiteriver, located in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. However, I am a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe. I have grown up mostly in the city of Phoenix, while I spent most of my school days in the valley of the sun, I graduated my last year from the same high school both of my parents did back in our hometown, Chief Alchesay High School. My cultural background is rather diverse because of the different influences from my parents. My mother side consisted of the Hopi tribe, while my father’s side was made up of the Navajo and Apache tribes. The religious diversity that I encountered growing up was mostly Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, and Mormonism. But we would still hold our uniquely distinct tribal beliefs. As far as I can remember, this complexity of belief systems contradicted in how the world and reality itself was to be perceived. These beliefs never really corresponded to my own personal kind of analytical thinking, even at a young age. I’ve never been afraid to question things.
What does it mean to be a “Native Skeptic”?
The term “Native Skeptic” was initially meant to be a play on words describing the perspective of looking at subjects surrounding Native American culture through the eyes of a skeptic, as a way to bridge the scientific-skeptic community with the tribal communities. It was also used to describe how I saw myself amongst the skeptical community, a fellow native of skepticism. I was hoping to get people questioning what they thought this meant, take a double take, and eventually define it in their own terms.
How did you become involved with organized skepticism?
Philosophy, Socrates, and the socratic method, planted a seed with a question, “What is knowledge?” If you can’t define that for yourself, then how can you maintain the claim that you truly “know” anything? I wanted to know how we as the collective human race compiled all of the scientific understandings of such things like Einstein’s theory of relativity or how we know certain things about the nature of subatomic particles. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN really ignited my interest in getting to the bottom of how man could even postulate such a machine. The process of how science works became clear only after I became more familiar with the history of science, and finally I had the standard for knowledge that I was looking for: scientific knowledge.
After becoming engulfed in this newfound obsession for everything science related, it was only a matter of time before I came across the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. Simply listening to the SGU let me know that there was this community out there and that really helped sharpen my critical thinking skills while establishing a deep-seeded root to be more actively involved in skepticism. I wanted to help others follow along those lines and discover how enlightening and empowering science can be through its relevance to everything.
What are some of the biggest misperceptions that non-Natives have about American Indians in general?
Aside from the more obscure stereotypes (such as the idea that all natives are well off and don’t need to seek employment because of the obscene money collected from casinos), one of the more general misconceptions is the notion that Native people posses some inherent resistance to skeptical thinking, or science in general. While I understand where this idea may come from, the tribal beliefs from the majority of tribes throughout the world share a common thread that is not widely expressed or understood.
People have always turned to nature for answers to the realities of day-to-day life, so the uncertainties that nature can bring in the form of weather or other natural disasters is often considered and represented by some form of ritual or ceremonial practices. Paradoxical thought or notions of chaos like those commonly found in Eastern philosophy are quite present. For example, the Apache tribal beliefs use a thunder bolt splitting in two directions to represent the good and bad, a representation closely congruent to the Taoist symbols of yin and yang. All cultures look to nature for the answers to questions about life and reality. Native Americans have stories and tradition of ceremony that are used as the testimonial evidence of nature. There is an ever-present concept of using methodology to seek guidance from “Mother Earth” about the truths in our lives and reality. This is why as scientific thinkers, we can say that we are somewhat free of personal bias because we let nature tell us what is real and this defines what it means to be a “free-thinker.” So scientific understanding and skeptical thought are not actually novel to Native Americans. In fact I’ve found that the representation of the Clown (or Trickster) in tribal philosophies is a reminder to always be aware of certain blind spots in humans understanding of nature and they acknowledge that ignorance by questioning their perceptions of reality.
How do you think that skepticism can benefit Native American communities?
Everything in this world has to experience and adapt alongside with the unpredictable nature of change. American Indians are no exception to this rule, for they too have had to adapt, and will continue to endure some transformation as they evolve with the changing times. Social movements such as skepticism are the exception to the common notion of people generally being resistant to change. Social groups aim to change a part of society that has been neglected or is without representation by bringing attention to them and finding support to bureaucratically transform the public perception. Since I consider skepticism to be a social group along those lines, I also think that the skeptics movement can offer Native American communities hope for a future of tribal sovereignty by offering tools of critical thought to develop a deeper understanding of various issues and how to apply that analytical thought process to the situations that people face on reservations.
How do you think that skepticism can help non-Natives understand Native American communities and issues?
If skeptics are seeking to inspire change of the worldview into a world with more scientific understanding, then people should become familiar with what a social group actually is, so that we can more effectively inspire change to that part of society which has been neglected or unrepresentative, and bring the attention to these issues to help find the support to transform the public’s perception.
I feel that the only way a person will have that urge to be proactive in helping others is through relating themselves with others. Simply bringing awareness to the discrimination that most people tend to neglect, and ignore, can be considered as some sort of success because the acknowledgment that there is a problem is the first step to identifying a need for change. However, skepticism can help anyone by providing science literacy and critical thinking to better ensure protection from all forms of nonsense and pseudoscience.
Do many Native Americans find that skepticism is incompatible with traditional beliefs? If so, how do you reconcile that?
While I do fin
d that this notion of skepticism being incompatible with traditional beliefs to be prevalent among certain older generations, I feel that teaching others what the ancestors did practice and where those beliefs actually come from, along with some tools of critical thought, can help younger generations develop that understanding for themselves. The most influential people in my life taught through their actions, so I plan to leave my own trail of bread crumbs through sharing my personal journey to skepticism for those to follow.
A longer version of this interview originally appeared in the Skeptical Briefs newsletter, Volume 21.3, Fall 2011