Producers film parade for "Casino Nation"

Filmmaker feels the tension: a casino divides his tribe

Originally published in Current, Nov. 5, 2007
By Katy June-Friesen

Even as I’m talking to you right now, I still feel awkward about saying who our characters are,” says Terry Jones, producer of Casino Nation, planned for broadcast next year on P.O.V.

For one reason, his film is about the Seneca Nation, his own Native American tribe. He’s also mindful of the strong opinions that the film’s subject — Indian gaming — can inspire. He and his co-producers, who are just beginning to edit the film, haven’t released much information about the doc, fearing that people will judge it pro- or anti-casino before it even airs.

“I’m getting a little nervous, because it’s sort of like I’m putting my people under the microscope,” Jones says.

Jones began filming with editor Laure Sullivan and cinematographer Paul Wilson in 2002, when the Seneca Nation, headquartered in western New York near Buffalo, narrowly passed a referendum to pursue construction of a casino. The Seneca Niagara Casino opened Dec. 31 that year, and the tribe — which has only about 7,200 enrolled members — has opened two more since then.

Casino Nation, one of four films to receive funding through P.O.V.’s CPB-funded Diverse Voices Project, traces the emotional — and material — effects of the casino. Jones says it’s ultimately a broader look at Seneca culture.

The go-ahead for the casino followed a bitter civil war, beginning with the close election in 1994 of tribal President Dennis Bowen, who campaigned against gambling and what he said was corruption in the tribal government. Clashes between his supporters and opponents turned violent in 1995 — three people were killed in a shootout.

“One of [our] prophesies that’s foretold is that a father and son will fight to the death, and that’s what happened during the civil war,” says Jones. “An anti-casino son killed his pro-casino father.”

The family — and the tribe — literally split, says Jones, and he thinks little healing has happened since. With Casino Nation, he wanted to explore the effects of the dispute and the ever-present tension between tradition and change. “Our intention . . . as we follow different characters and perspectives,” he says, “is to tear down some of those walls that are causing the conflict.” Staunch traditionalists tend to reject the casino, he says, progressives want to move ahead with it, and the majority fall in the middle.

In five years of filming, including conversations with members of the split family, Jones heard both sides wishing for the same things. “They want to take care of their kids, they want to take care of the elderly, and they want to plan for the seventh generation,” he says. “We want the same thing, yet we think we’re on opposite sides.”

For some Senecas, the casino is clearly an economic boon. A woman in the film takes her first vacation after getting a job at the casino. “She can provide for her family,” says Jones. “People aren’t worrying as much about trying to live paycheck to paycheck. A few of our characters can look beyond that and say, ‘I want to learn how to bead, or I want to learn to speak my language.’”

Jones believes that most Senecas feel the tension between the traditional teachings of the Longhouse way of life and what he calls “the outside world.”

 “It’s really about walking between two worlds or existing between two worlds,” says Jones, who grew up traditional but moved to New York City. He now lives in SoHo and works in marketing in the fashion industry. “I moved to New York City so I could have this non-Native experience, because . . . I wanted to be an individual. But be careful what you wish for, because I got exactly that — people didn’t know where I was from.”

A film that explores such tensions on personal and political levels might seem destined for pubTV. “Everyone knows the Indian casino industry,” says P.O.V. Executive Director Simon Kilmurry, “but I haven’t seen anything that goes behind the scenes. I think. Terry brings a very personal lens to this. . . . That sense of tension that he feels — we’re hoping that gets translated into the film.”

Jones says he struggled to find financial backing. Casino Nation made it to the final rounds for funding from the Independent Television Service five times without success — half the panel loved it, he says, but the other half didn’t get it. “Everybody has their own idea about what a Native American film should look like,” he says. Some expect mystical medicine men; others want the offbeat sensibility of Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals.

[Besides ITVS, the Sundance Institute Documentary Program helped fund the project.]

“I’ve always felt that Native filmmaking in general is like pitching a foreign film,” says Jones, “because our audience really knows nothing about us. When I watch a foreign film, of course I want a great story and great characters, but I’m also looking to see . . . where do they go to school? What do they drive? What does their home life look like?”

For the P.O.V. audience, Jones expects his film will be educational — viewers will see what a reservation looks like and hear discussion about the Senecas’ culture, their language and political system.

Jones’s non-Native co-producers learned a few things on the reservation, including the fact that you can’t just run up to someone who seems like a good character, ask them a direct question, and get a direct answer, says Jones. “You can’t do that back home — it’s almost like a dance. You have to have a conversation, and then maybe the next time I see them I’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this film.’” Also, when you visit an Indian house, the first thing people want to do is feed you. “You have to eat, even if you just ate,” Jones says, “because that’s like a huge cultural no-no [to refuse].”

The filmmakers worked as a sort of tag team. “There were certain perspectives that we wanted, but I was so close to the subject matter that it seemed almost culturally inappropriate for me to ask that, so then my non-Native producer Philip would ask the questions,” says Jones. “But then sometimes there would be that trust issue — [people] wouldn’t trust a non-Native, and that’s when I would step in.”

This month, the film team will return to the Seneca Nation once more to do their last interviews. “Our characters have a five-year perspective on what they thought the casino was going to do,” Jones says. He hopes he can adequately and respectfully reflect these perspectives in a way that doesn’t offend friends and family. “I’d like to go home and visit,” he says.

Bracketed material added after completion of print edition.

Web page posted Dec. 6, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee

Wilson and Jones (left) film the Seneca Fall Festival Parade on the tribe's reservation near Buffalo, N.Y. (Photos: P.O.V.)


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