A storyteller brings ancient Native American tales to life
Perry Ground ’91 could not find a place in Rural Sociology 175.
So he sat on the floor, like he did when he was a kid when his great-grandfather and grandmother would tell Native American stories around the woodstove or a picnic table at home. .
What he experienced in that class, at the end of his freshman spring semester, would help him explore his Native American identity – and share that cultural heritage as well.
Teaching Assistant Steve Fadden ’88, MPS ’93, a Mohawk storyteller from a family of storytellers, began to tell Native American tales and explain the traditions, beliefs and values ââheld in them.
âI saw the reaction of all the students: they were captivated by it,â says Ground. âI said, that’s it. It’s a way to teach in a positive way, to attract people to be included and want to learn more. I realized, at that point, how powerful these stories could be.
Ground now travels the world to interpret traditional stories of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (sometimes referred to as Iroquois), adapting them to the present while preserving their ancient spirit.
He has performed in schools in New York State, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, and in Belgium, Croatia and Serbia. For the 2021-22 academic year, he is Professor Frederick H. Minett at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
âA lot of what I do is take those old written versions from the late 1800s, early 1900s, with Victorian-style language, and bring them into an accessible and understandable modern setting,â explains Ground. “The most important thing for me is that the public leaves happy and that they have a positive impression of Native Americans.”
âI would call him a new traditionalist,â says Joseph Bruchac ’64, an Abenakian Nulhegan author and storyteller in Greenfield Center, New York, who has known Ground for three decades. âIt brings the relationship of the modern world back to the past. He can really read an audience and understand that he is making it clear to them in a way that few storytellers can. He’s really very good that way.
Adapt and evolve
Ground grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, only occasionally visiting his father’s Tonawanda Seneca Reservation and the Onondaga Reservation where his mother was born. After her parents’ divorce, her mother married a man of Italian descent. âI feel like I grew up in a very Italian family, as opposed to a Native American family,â he says.
He and his sister were the only Native American children in their school. Like many young people, he struggled to define his identity.
That changed at Cornell.
As a freshman, Ground participated in Cornell’s Native American Indian and Indigenous Peoples Studies Program, through which students study and contribute to the building of Indigenous nations and communities. Surrounded by other Native American students, he began to explore his identity as a member of the turtle clan of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (pronounced Ho-di-no-SO-ni) confederacy of six sovereign nations.
âIt was new, it was exciting. It has been instructive for me as an Aboriginal person, âsays Ground. “Being able to take classes to learn more about Native American history and culture, I also learned about myself and who I was.”
After his freshman year, he worked over the summer as a park aide at Ganondagan, a state park dedicated to Seneca culture in Victor, New York, where he began storytelling with Marion Miller, a Seneca storyteller. . âBy the end of this summer, I knew I wanted to find a way to use the stories to positively educate people about Native Americans,â he says.
Now, Ground always begins their stories the same way. He claps his hands once and says, “This story happened a long time ago, when the Big Turtle Island was new.”
The Haudenosaunee traditionally told these stories only in winter, around fires in longhouses that housed 60 to 80 people. They mix the mythical with the everyday. Monstrous flying heads roam the forest, representing the destructive forces of nature – and the negative traits of humans. The female bear takes on human form and adopts a young boy lost in the forest, teaching him to recognize a focused hunter. Magic Corn replicates to feed an entire village, while tricksters like Fox get their bounty. When Sky Woman falls from a hole in the sky, Turtle offers her back to her as a place to live and build Earth, also known as the Big Turtle Island.
Creation stories describe how the rain came and why a species of tree grows in a certain way. Historical stories teach specific events, such as the six nations forming the confederation. Some stories teach you the right way to behave. Others just entertain, says Ground. “They are meant to be fun.”
Lacrosse player, Ground interprets the plot of the story. Sometimes he jumps into the audience. âI flip someone’s hat, or I pull a hood over their head, or I pull on their leg or I play with their hair,â he says. “I’m going to say ‘Hey, you have to be careful when you’re around Fox. He’s a pretty cunning guy.
âIt’s a way of putting things in the present,â he says. “The more action, activity and movement I add, the less static it is.”
He will pause to explain concepts or words his audience may not be familiar with, such as wedding bread. Traditionally, women offered men this cornbread made from boiled white corn to propose marriage. âI’m trying to think about how the native people heard a story 500 years ago, before the Europeans? Earth said. “How should this story be presented now, with enough information for people to understand?” “
During COVID-19 lockdowns, it pivoted to virtual performance. Through the University of Iowa, he performed stories for Native Americans listening to Native Health Centers in the United States and Canada.
And he started serializing his stories on Facebook, each installment accompanied by illustrations, often by Native American artists. It has some 11,000 followers, mostly Native Americans. Students at Akwesasne Freedom School in Hogansburg, New York, where they learn exclusively in Mohawk, translate the stories into Mohawk, and recite them as part of their daily lessons.
âIn our traditions, stories are used to entertain and teach,â says Bruchac. âIf they’re entertaining, they’ll be remembered. More than anything else, Perry wants these stories to really play their original role, which is to teach and guide, especially the new generation of young people.
New genres, old roots
Ground also wants its audience to understand that Native Americans are human beings, adapting and changing as all cultures do over time. âSo many times people think Native Americans today are storybook characters coming to life – that we have left the pages of ‘I Is for Indian’,â he says. “I want people to leave with a positive impression of Native Americans – but also that this is a group of human beings that have existed here in North America for thousands of years, and these stories are stories. contemporary for everyone. “
He is currently writing a film script, a fantasy action film about the peacemaker who brought the Haudenosaunee Confederacy together, in a spirit similar to the Marvel movie “Black Panther”.
And he’s writing scripts for a fantasy action TV series. The main character, a Haudenosaunee, is immersed in the stories when the Big Turtle Island was new. Meanwhile, a heroine lives the same stories these days. It’s also a bit of a love story, says Ground.
âWe’re really trying to create a new genre,â he says. “But the message, or the lesson of the story – that part remains the same.”