Interview with Terry Jones, Seneca Filmmaker and Activist/Scholar
Recently–in anticipation of EVC’s upcoming Docs & Dialogue on Native American identity and representation– EVC had the opportunity to interview prolific Native American filmmaker and activist/scholar, Terry Jones.
Terry Jones is a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, located in western New York State, and founder of TornJerseyMedia: an independent Indigenous media production company. Through his award-winning short films, Jones shares his Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) heritage to both entertain and educate audiences. Currently, Jones is pursuing his MFA in film at York University in Toronto, Ontario and serves as Secretary on the Board of Trustees at the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum on the Seneca Territory.
You can read his full interview with EVC below.
EVC: Please introduce yourself and your film experience.
TJ: I am Terry Jones and I am a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. As a teenager, I was introduced to photography and video doing summer enrichment programs on the Indian reservation where I grew up in western New York. I was told by my high school guidance counselor that only 5% of artists make a living through art and was encouraged to pursue a business degree instead. To make a long story short: I graduated high school a year early and made an unsuccessful attempt at an Information Systems degree at Pace University in NYC. I then spent almost two decades exchanging my time for a decent wage working in corporate America as a number cruncher. In 2010, following the economic downturn in 2008, I moved back home to Seneca territory. Then, in 2012, I enrolled in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University where I graduated at the top of my class in 2016. Once I started submitting the films I produced at Syracuse to film festivals, my presence in the film and media industry took off. In the six years since, ten of my short films have been screened in over 25+ festivals worldwide. It was during this time that I realized that I have a distinct aesthetic and a way of storytelling that resonates with viewers outside academia.
Am I in it for the long-haul? I believe so. I feel there is so much more to learn about film and media in its traditional, past form and in the ever-evolving forms of today and tomorrow. In September of 2022, I started pursuing an MFA in film at York University in Toronto. I would like to eventually make a living as a filmmaker and perhaps even teach an Indigenous media course at the university level.
EVC: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest issues impacting the lives of Native Americans today?
TJ: Like many other Native communities, my home territory is confronted with many issues that negatively impact our quality of life, such as: loss of language, drug abuse, diabetes, environmental dangers, public safety, and injustice. I hope that my prior and future film projects can facilitate discussions that can promote changes in public perceptions and public policy.
EVC: The EVC film, We, The People, explores the racial stereotyping of Native Americans by mainstream media, as seen in cartoons, sports teams, and liquor and cigarette advertisements. In your view, what role do stereotypes play, or have historically played, in shaping the lives of Native Americans?
TJ: For me as a filmmaker, I see Native American stereotypes in mainstream media in coded, ingrained, or romanticized images (still and moving) produced by people who do not come from those communities but who have historically had the equipment and the platform to show those images. I believe this is changing! As Native Americans, we now have more control over how we are portrayed on screen. The context of our image comes directly from us and not from the dominant-culture lens.
EVC: Since the film’s premiere in 1992, what has or hasn’t changed about Native American representation in the media? Can you think of recent examples of positive or negative representations?
TJ: Rather than accentuate the negative aspects of Native American misrepresentation or under-representation in the media, I would like to highlight some of the positive changes I have noticed. For example, I am encouraged to see the larger streaming platforms in the U.S. including Native American creatives on shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls. I am also very inspired to see more grassroots or non-mainstream organizations foster emerging Native voices in media and film. For instance, imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival is the largest film festival to screen Indigenous film and media arts in the world. The festival takes place in mid-October every year and it just celebrated its 23rd convening. Additionally, Wapikoni Mobile is a non-profit organization based out of Montreal, Quebec. It hosts educational workshops and film screenings to help raise awareness and educate the wider public about Indigenous cultures, issues and rights.
I celebrate the expansion of Native American representation not only in acting but also in those Native creatives who work behind the camera. We are now occupying spaces in media and in film as producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, costumers, and so much more! We now define what stories are told, how they are told and why they are told. I am thrilled by how far our representation in the media and film has progressed over time and in recent years.
EVC: What would you like people to know about Native Americans? What does being Native American mean to you?
TJ: We are still here! It’s challenging to be a Native filmmaker. Producing a Native film, whether a narrative or a documentary, is like pitching a foreign film within the U.S. For example, when I watch a foreign film, aside from trying to understand the narrative and characters while reading subtitles, I am also trying to observe these new environments, such as: where do they live, where do they go to school, and what is their way of life. In the U.S., Native films have that same problem. We live in a society where the dominant culture does not fully understand us. Our films need to not only entertain our audiences but inform them as well.
Interested in hearing more from Terry Jones?
Join EVC on November 17th from 6-7:30 PM at Docs & Dialogue, a virtual film screening and community dialogue on Native American identity and representation. EVC’s young people will be screening the 1992 youth-produced documentary We, The People. This film explores the racial stereotyping of Native Americans by mainstream media through the lens of Native youth and community activists in New York City.
Docs & Dialogue will be hosted by EVC alumni Cirilo Ordonez and Zuri Salehe, with featured guests Terry Jones and Norris Francis Branham, a filmmaker and activist of mixed Lenape, Cherokee, and African descent.