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Interview with Terry Jones conducted by Reaghan Tarbell, Film and Video Center, NMAI
RT: Can you introduce yourself briefly and tell me where you’re from?
TJ: My name is Terry Jones. I am a member of the Seneca Nations of Indians located in upstate New York. I’m an independent filmmaker [and have] recently moved back to the reservation after 26 years here in New York City. My rez or, actually, we call it our territory, because reservation implies that you were somewhere and they moved you, but we still inhabit [our original] area. We are about 40,000 square acres, situated about 30 miles south of Buffalo, New York. The Senecas are split into two reservations, the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, which is 30 miles South of Buffalo, and the Allegany Indian Reservation, about 45 miles south of Buffalo.
RT: Were you one of those people who always thought you’d be making films one day?
TJ: Growing up on my rez, I really didn’t have a whole lot of role models. Luckily for me in the late '70s and early '80s they had these federal programs where they brought photo journalism and video workshops for gifted Native youth. That’s when I thought more about photography as a way of documenting life, or Native life. But even then, photography was still considered new. The Indians back home didn’t consider photography art, it was usually beading, usually carving, but it was never photography. The video portions of the programs that I did really interested me in becoming a filmmaker.
RT: And you eventually ended up going to the Institute for American Indian Arts (IAIA); could you talk a little bit about that?
TJ: My first video experience, I just picked up the video camera and made a film called What in the Hell Is Corn Soup? It was more or less just supposed to be an idea for potential funding. I went to my East Village apartment and filmed the whole process from beginning to end. Then when I had a corn soup party, I realized that instead of explaining about the whole process of the corn and the wood ash, I could just show it visually. That was in 2001. In 2002 I started my first feature project that is still in postproduction, Casino Nation.
IAIA started this summer television workshop where they brought twenty Native American filmmakers together, thanks to ABC/Disney, and we worked on short films all summer. Based on that experience—it was hard work, six weeks in the desert—ABC/Disney awarded me a Talent Development grant. That was a year-long mentorship program at ABC/Disney where I worked on a feature-length screenplay and worked with industry insiders to help tell the story that I wrote. The story is about a 13-year-old Seneca girl’s experience in a residential school in the 1940s; she’s struggling between the two worlds of her grandmother’s traditional world and her modern mother’s world. That project was under option by ABC/Disney for a year…but [in] the industry, Native stories, especially time period stories, are very hard to get produced.
RT: Do you speak your language?
TJ: I speak bits and pieces, commands. My mother went to a residential boarding school that was on our reserve and went in at four years old speaking Seneca, and within [her] generation, it ended. But I did grow up speaking the commands, and at about ten years old I took Seneca language classes and almost started to put sentences together. When I hit high school and [had to] take a second language, Seneca wasn’t offered, so I took French.
RT: But you are working with the language now. Can you talk about that?
TJ: The last couple of years I’ve been working with this grassroots organization called IRVS, Indigenous ReVitalization School.... Its main mission is to teach the whole Seneca community the Seneca language through an immersion program. The experience that I received in the outside world in New York—I was on the board of directors of the American Indian Community House for four years as an officer; my experience working on Casino Nation and working with ABC Disney—gives me a skill set that is actually really valuable for programs like these.
So, out of 7800 Seneca members there are about 100 fluent Seneca speakers—there is a definite need to preserve [the language]. I think the important thing is to get the kids when they’re young; it’s very hard as an adult once you reach a certain age to learn the language. If I can in some way help preserve the Seneca language.... It’s not just language, language is alive, it’s all part of our way of life. We are followers of the Code of Handsome Lake and if you don’t have the language part of it, if the language dies….
RT: Tell me about your influences.
TJ: Reaghan Tarbell is an influence [laugh]. I think for filmmakers and artists in general there’s a lack of role models. I used to always complain growing up, “Whose footsteps can I follow in? Who can I emulate?” I actually thought that was a curse until I got to a place of embracing my own artistry, to realize we all have our own machetes and we cut our own path; it’s actually liberating to do work that’s not mainstream. Being in New York, everyone wants to be an actor, everybody wants to be a writer, but what makes you you? Everyone’s trying to fit into this mainstream ideal.
I think, as well, when you see a filmmaker or artist who’s getting recognition, it’s hard on the artist because they become a representative of the "whole," not even just the tribe, let alone the individual themselves. That’s a heavy burden to have. I don’t want to mention any names [laugh].
RT: You mentioned Casino Nation, the feature documentary you’re working on. Can you tell us about it?
TJ: I think any indigenous culture dealing with the outside world has these moments of very fast change. Throughout history, as a people, it’s all a matter of how we adapt to it; most of the time it's just how we survive it, forget adapting and coming out of it in a healthy way. In the early '90s my tribe started having ideas about bringing in casino gambling, but the traditional people—the followers of the Code of Handsome Lake—it goes against our ways. We were actually warned about gambling and money and alcohol. The factions pro and anti casino started to take form; we had a tribal civil war, more or less, over casinos, and we lost three tribal members because of it.
When I pitch the film I say it’s more or less showing the effects of the casino on my tribe. Really what I want to do is show my community, how it affects us. Not monetarily, not through great projects or great funding—it’s a bigger picture than that—it's language, it's culture, but on the flip side it’s money, it could be ego, could be power. As I said, it’s very, very fast change. With only a hundred fluent speakers left and with these millions of dollars coming in, where are we going to find that balance to sustain ourselves? In some ways, I know that in the future there will be another fast change that’s going to come, and if we don’t learn the lessons of the recent past then we’re doomed to repeat it.
RT: There’s a very specific story that’s happening in your documentary. Could you give us a little explanation?
TJ: We open with our recent history with the community itself and the federal government—when they come in and flooded our lands through the Kinzua Dam in the 1960s—that was us against the government. But then we transition to the casino issue and it’s us against each other, and that’s fairly new—there may have been arguments before…. [laugh] Presently, we’re in post-production. We’ve been editing for quite some time; we’re still trying to find that final story.
RT: About being a selector, can you tell what the process has been like for you so far, the experience?
TJ: I feel like…I don’t know how to say it. For me, my whole experience as a filmmaker, actually my whole life, has been unconventional: I’m left-handed, I have a different eye for art and the new media, whether it’s film or photography; I came to New York, I left the reservation. I didn’t get a college degree, I got real life experiences in terms of the skills I have. Working with a non-profit organization for four years on their board, sitting on the panel for the New York State Council for the Arts gives me a strong sense of what needs to go into a grant. My experiences with ABC/Disney and the different workshops and programs I’ve been in for filmmaking—I’ve just been a sponge, completely learning. Just because I don’t have a degree doesn’t make me feel like I’m lacking, but sometimes I do feel like a fraud, “Why am I here, exactly?” In terms of being a selector, I think I have a different eye. Growing up traditional—I don’t want to say it in a way that sounds like "I’m a real Indian,"—but because I’m traditional and I come from a very traditional upbringing, and then being able to live in the city, I know that whole [experience] from the point of being traditional to being completely urban and everything in between.
Screening all these films from indigenous people throughout the hemisphere—the content may be different, but the processes are all the same. We’re all dealing with language, we’re all dealing with preservation of language, and we’re dealing with maintaining our culture. The biggest thing that I’m seeing is that a lot of these stories are about trying to find that balance between personal self and dealing with the outside world and dealing with yourself in the community.
A lot of these films, you can’t really pinpoint a genre or subject that covers everybody—forget it, forget America, forget Canada, it’s the whole hemisphere, that could be urban or straight off the rez. The production values might not be as "industry" or commercial, but access to media equipment—anybody can get a MiniDV camera now and tell their story—the lighting and sound might not be right, but the important thing is Native people telling stories about themselves for themselves. I think that’s the mission here—to give a voice to these filmmakers who aren’t normally given a chance to have their work screened in a setting like the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s great to look at these films and see these stories told from within.
RT: I think we're good unless there’s anything else you want to add.
TJ: The only thing I’d like to say in terms of people looking to be a filmmaker: "Don’t have an ideal that your film has to be playing in the mall multiplex, or that it has to play on TV—it can be just for you, it can be just for your community. There’s a lot of access to film equipment; even if it’s an old 8mm, just pick it up and start telling your story. Don’t let anything stop you."