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WORDS & VIDEO: What Does Poetry Mean to a Native American?

What is poetry? For me, works of poetry are words with profound subtext. Each individual word by themselves may have nothing but its literal meaning or basic concept. Depending on how one arranges words into sentences or fragmented phrases, the author is able to encode their personal life views through the use of analogies, metaphors or allegories (or more!).

While I was attending high school, I found poetry to be boring and complicated. It may have had something to do with my Native American upbringing. In Seneca culture, we mean what we say and our use of the English language has little to no subtext when we are speaking to one another. One day, my English teacher asked us to write our epitaph. How could an invincible and I’m-going-to-live-forever teenager possibly contemplate the words he would like on his gravestone? Little did I know then, but I would be writing my first piece of poetry.

Epitaph” by Terry Jones - Age 17

Under this plot of ground rests my bones.

There are no differences between my bones

or anyone else's.

For everyone who was once somebody is now equal forever.

When I was 5 years old,

I was forced to leave my band of people

and try to make in “their” world.

Since that time

and all through my life

I have made it their world and have become a part of them.

But those who chose not to prove themselves,

considered me as white as they were.

They failed to understand what I have understood.

There are no differences between my bones

or anyone else's.

For everyone who is once somebody is now equal forever.

Until a recently, my first poem sat in my archive of high school papers. What did I learn from my younger self? Basically, my worldview has not changed since I wrote my gravestone words. “Epitaph” predated my travels throughout the world. I’ve been to almost every country in Europe, Turkey, Costa Rica and even Fiji. Sometimes I hear the adage that we should write a letter to our younger selves. “Epitaph” is that concept in reverse. I thank my younger self for these words of wisdom to the “me” of today.

Below is a visualization of "Epitaph" which was produced while studying film at Syracuse University in 2012.

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