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Native Storyteller Becomes Filmmaker in Wake of 9/11

Terry Jones ’16

On September 11, 2001, Terry Jones ’16 was in his New York City East Village apartment when he heard the roar of a plane flying low overhead.

Portrait of Terry Jones in front of a brick wall
Photo by Steve Sartori

It was American Airlines Flight 11, the jetliner that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, located next to the office building where Jones worked as a presentation specialist for a financial company. After the terrorist attack, Jones struggled through the stress of living with the effects of that day’s events, smelling the acrid smoke of the burning rubble, and the loss of his job.

The traumatic experience left him questioning what he was doing with his life. “I thought about how I could reinvent myself,” Jones says. “To do something more creative than being a number cruncher.” That reinvention included going back to his roots—a member of the Wolf Clan of the Seneca Nation, Jones returned to the nation’s territory in Cattaraugus, New York. There, he rekindled an interest in filmmaking, originally sparked by a high school summer enrichment program in photography. “I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but growing up on a reservation, never felt I was good enough,” he says. “Hollywood was not for us.” The advent of digital media gave him the chance to make and screen films that focused on Native American traditions and beliefs—such as What in the Heck is Corn Soup? —without formal education in filmmaking.

There are stories that need to be told, sad things, but also poetic and profound.

That training came with his acceptance to Syracuse University as a Haudenosaunee Promise Scholar in the film department of the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). He’s made the most of the opportunities offered, learning his craft as a producer, actor, screenwriter, and editor, studying not only on campus, but also in Bologna, Prague, and Los Angeles. Since his freshman year, Jones has worked closely with fellow student and colleague Govind Deecee ’16, a cinematographer. “It’s a collaboration between American and Indian Indians,” he smiles.

His 9/11 experience of what a counselor termed historical trauma gave Jones additional empathy for his parents, who as children endured deprivation and abuse in the infamous Indian residential boarding schools. “There are stories that need to be told, sad things, but also poetic and profound,” he says. “Hopefully, through my film work, I will be able to pass on what my parents taught me.” The first person in his immediate family to graduate college, Jones also hopes to inspire other Native American students to follow in his footsteps. “What I would like to leave behind in terms of my time here at Syracuse is to let other Haudenosaunee students know you can find a balance between keeping your identity and still having an academic career,” he says.

Jones’s academic achievements have brought him accolades, including being named a Udall Scholar, a Syracuse University Scholar, a Gilman International Scholar, and a VPA Scholar. He was also a Renée Crown University Honors Program student who received a Crown-Wise Award to support his Capstone project. In an especially proud moment, he gave the VPA student Convocation address, perhaps the first Native American to do so. As a University Scholar, he was among the leaders in the academic procession during Commencement on May 15. It was also his birthday. “I couldn’t have planned it better,” he says.

Paula Meseroll

This story was published on .

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