Breathing new life into ancient tales

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Perry Ground, a member of the Turtle Clan, is best known for telling stories.
(Photos courtesy of Perry Ground-Talking Turtle Stories)

Perry Ground, the current Rochester Institute of Technology Frederick H. Minnett Professor, stands before a dozen or so students in an RIT classroom and welcomes a few more on Zoom. It is early in November, near the start of the fall semester. They are there for an event billed as “Meet the Minnett Professor.” 

The Minnett post is a one-year professorship that RIT describes as “designed to bring distinguished Rochester-area multicultural professionals to the RIT campus to share their professional knowledge and experience with RIT’s students, faculty, and staff.” 

RIT began the Minnett Professor program in 1991. Past holders of the post include former Rochester Mayor William Johnson Jr., News10NBC anchor Janet Lomax and former Rochester City School District Superintendent Clifford Janey. 

Introducing himself at the November event, Ground plans to tell the group a story. But first, he tells them about himself.

“I am a member of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee and a member of the Turtle Clan. I’m best known for storytelling,” Ground says, touching a turtle-shaped bone pendant he wears around his neck. 

Minnett Professors design their own programs. In the first semester of his professorship, Ground has decided not to teach full courses, but instead to hold events like the November session and do guest lectures in others’ classes. 

Ground is working closely with Cliff Jacobs, director of RIT’s Native American Future Stewards Program. Other events the pair have collaborated on include a Native American Pictionary session for which Ground made up a set of Native American-themed game cards and Ground’s telling of the “Real Story of Thanksgiving.”

Ground, says Jacobs, “is amazing; he can walk up to anybody get them involved.”

Teaching ethnohistory

At the November meet-the-professor session, Ground tells the students that “the Haudenosaunee have been here for 1,000 years. We are also known as the Iroquois, but that is not what we call ourselves. Iroquois is a French corruption of a name other people called us. Those people did not hold us in high regard. Their name for us means snake. We didn’t like those other people either. We called them bark eaters.”

The people the Haudenosaunee called bark eaters are Hurons, a Native American tribe that speaks a language in the same group as the Haudenosaunee and who, like the Haudenosaunee, traditionally lived in bark longhouses and followed many similar customs. In the 1600s, the two groups were bitter enemies and warred with each other. Competition for fur trade with the French was behind much of their enmity. Later, during the French and Indian War in the mid-1700s, the Huron allied with the French, while the Haudenosaunee sided with the British, reason for fresh conflict.

Ground does not name the Hurons on this day. An account of his people’s wars with the Hurons is not a story Ground wants to tell, at least not yet. It could come later, in the spring semester, when he plans to teach a course that mixes traditional fact-oriented Western history with traditional Native American stories, an approach he calls ethnohistory.

Ethnohistory, says Ground, “is not on this date this happened, this person was important because of this. It comes from a cultural perspective.” 

In the courses Ground plans for the fall, “we’ll throw in some actual events, some dates, some names, some places because you have to. Even with ethnohistory, you have to have the history part of it too.” But the events and places will be touchstones in the background. Stories will be the meat of the courses. 

Ground’s method of “intertwining storytelling with lecturing” is very effective, captivating audiences, says Jacobs, who has seen it in action at Ground’s guest lectures.  

Dressed in deerskin leggings, a breechcloth, a colorful shirt and wearing a gustoweh, a round, feathered cap with two large feathers sticking straight up from its top, Ground cuts a colorful figure at the November event. The outfit, an ensemble he’s had specially made, is his usual storytelling attire. 

The two feathers protruding from the gustoweh show that he is Onondaga. Each tribe in the six-nation Haudenosaunee confederacy—Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida or Tuscarora—can be identified by the number of feathers protruding from the top its men’s gustowehs, Ground tells the students. That identifier was only decided in the 1980s, he adds. Before then, men from any tribe would sport any number of feathers. 

Ground’s point in relating that detail, he explains, is to show that Native American culture is not a static artifact preserved in amber but is a living tradition, one that is still evolving.   

Old and new

As Ground’s professorship was just getting underway in mid-September, he and I sat at a table in the second-floor café of the Penfield Wegmans. The café is not far from his home in the Rochester suburb. It is a sort of hangout for him, Ground told me while munching on a pastry, a convenient place to meet people.

We spoke for a couple of hours about his plans for the Minnett professorship and his storytelling career. In mufti, wearing a collared polo shirt and slacks, Ground could have been mistaken for the store’s produce manager. At one point, I casually referred Ground’s storytelling clothes as a costume.

He pointedly corrected me. “It’s not a costume. I’m not playing a Native American. I am Native American.” 

He added: “I have many pieces of my regalia that look as if they could be old. They’re not. They’re all made for me. But I talk about how the deerskin or the buffalo skin or the porcupine quills are things that we used prior to contact, but other elements that I have (are from after contact with Europeans) like (my) ribbon shirt that has silk and cotton cloth and glass bead jewelry. 

“I have things that are bone and shell and quill and I talk about those things and how we used them prior to contact, but then these other things came and we use them now. If I’m in a school, I talk about how I go home and put on jeans and a sweater or shorts and a golf shirt, whatever it might be, how I drive my car and things like that. I try to emphasize that things change.”

Ground is the second Native American in the Minnett professorship’s 30-year history to hold the post. Past appointees nominate and vote to approve each year’s appointee. Nominated by the 2007-’08 Minnett Professor, Peter Jemison, a visual artist best known locally as the founder and site manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site in Victor, Ground won unanimous approval of the 29 living Minnett alumni. 

The two feathers protruding from the gustoweh show that Perry Ground is Onondaga.

Regaling the RIT students with a traditional Haudenosaunee story of how the overly boastful black bear lost his fine, long tail after being outwitted by the fox, Ground begins with words some version of which he virtually always starts with.

“We say this story happened a looong time ago,” he intones, dramatically stretching out the word long and spreading his arms to emphasize the point, “when Sky Woman fell from a hole in the sky and Turtle Island was new.”

Ground is referring to the Haudenosaunee creation story. As the tale goes, a being called Sky Woman falls from a world above to an unformed earth and lands on the back of a turtle. The muskrat brings earth to the turtle’s back to make land. Skywoman becomes the progenitor of the people who now live on the Earth that grew on the turtle’s back. 

He leaves the creation story out for now. He will tell it fully later, as part of the ethnohistory course he plans to teach next semester.

As the story of the bear’s tail unfolds, Ground gestures and gesticulates, carefully modulating his voice for maximum dramatic effect. He hops around the room, acting out the part of the bear boasting about his fine tail to any woodland animal who will listen, He flaps his arms to play the part of a bird. He moves about the room, standing by one student and then another, drawing them into the tale. 

Tonia Galban is a Mohawk storyteller and basket maker who has long worked with Ground.

“We’ve been side-by-side. We’ve known each other for years, decades actually,” she says. “Perry’s style is very exciting. He goes from one end of the stage to the other, acting out every character. I don’t know how he does it. He’ll jump off the stage. I don’t do that. I’m not a storyteller like that. I’m stationary and more traditional.” 

Ground’s animated style of telling the ancient tales is not traditional. He says stories traditionally were told only in winter in longhouses, where, with as many as five families living in the compact, 1,500- to 1,800-square-foot buildings, there would have been no room for his athletic bounds or dramatic peregrinations. In fact, 100 or 200 years ago, Haudenosaunee storytellers would have frowned on much if not all of Ground’s methodology 

Archeologist Arthur C. Parker wrote in his 1923 book, “Seneca Myths & Folk Tales,” that among the Seneca and other Iroquoian tribes tradition demanded that stories not be told in summer or told outside at all as part of a taboo meant to ensure that “no animal should become offended by man’s boasting over beasts or learn too much of human cunning,” or “become so interested as to forget its place in nature.”

An early director of the Rochester Museum & Science Center, Parker, who died in 1955, was the son of a Seneca father and a Scotch-English mother. Because membership in Haudenosaunee nations is matrilineal, Parker was not a member of his father’s tribe by birth but was adopted by the Seneca at the age of 22 and given the name Gawaso Wanneh, which means Big Snowsnake. 

Parker, who identified as Native American, later was a co-founder of the Society of American Indians, an early Native American rights organization. As an archeologist, he exhaustively researched and documented Haudenosaunee tradition and history. During the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, he directed the Works Progress Administration’s Indian Arts Program.

Like Parker, Ground is a Haudenosaunee who has taken on a mission of shining a light on the confederacy’s traditions, and he might be seen as something of an heir to the RSMC director. But Ground, who was born nearly a century after Parker, has a markedly different view of how that mission should be carried out. 

In an introduction to a 1989 edition of Parker’s 1923 book, William Fenton, an anthropologist and ethnologist who was an expert in the Haudenosaunee who worked closely with Parker in the 1930s, quotes Parker’s own description of his intent in retelling the ancient tales as meaning “to produce the same emotions in the mind of the civilized man which is produced in the primitive mind, which entertains the myth.”  

In the introduction’s closing words, Fenton laments that “such material can no longer be had on reservations. Television has completely supplanted cycles of (such) tales. This entire genre of oral literature was already disappearing in the 1930s when I began field work and it has since gone the long trail.” 

Ground, one of a generation of Native Americans whose rallying cry is “we’re still here,” would beg to differ.  

Ground would no more call the stories he tells myths than he would call his storytelling regalia a costume. To Ground, the stories are not half-forgotten myths of a disappearing people, but “an insight into who we are. They contain lessons; they contain beliefs. Even just the structure of the story explains things about who we are and how we think.” 

Cultural reconnection

That Fenton’s 1989 view of the state of Native American culture stands at odds with Ground’s 2021 take is understandable. It is a view that even some Native Americans have been conditioned to accept.

By the mid-20th century, many U.S. native cultures had been brought to near annihilation. Defeated in 19th century wars as settlers moved steadily westward and claimed ancestral tribal lands, tribes had been displaced to reservations. 

Beginning in the 1700s and into the 20th century, many Native American children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their people’s customs. In 1956, Congress passed the Indian Relocation Act, establishing a program to encourage Native Americans to leave reservations and assimilate into the dominant culture. 

Despite such pressures and belying Fenton’s pessimism, beginning in the mid-20th century, a scattering of Native Americans began efforts to reconnect with their culture and history. 

The Ganondagan historic site is one local example of what has become a national, multipronged movement among Native Americans to foster such reconnection. Founded by Jemison in 1987, Ganondagan sits on what was then an unoccupied Ontario County hilltop meadow.   

A full-size bark longhouse sits on the Ganondagan historic site. (Photo: Ganondagan State Historic Site)

Until it was destroyed by French troops in the mid-1600s, a Seneca village stood on the site.

Largely due to Jemison’s efforts, the 245-acre site today includes a modern building housing exhibits of the Seneca village’s history including artifacts unearthed in archeological digs, as well as a theater and event space, nature trails and a full-size bark longhouse. 

Jemison, 76, grew up near two reservations just south of Buffalo in the 1950s. He recalls that few elders then still knew the Seneca’s traditional way and knew the old stories, “but I was always attracted to the them and sought them out. They would come and get me.” Before founding Ganondagan, Jemison ran an American Indian art gallery in New York City.

Ground, 52, grew up in Niagara Falls in the 1970s. His father, a Seneca, and his mother, an Onondaga, divorced when Ground was young. His mother married a first-generation son of Italian immigrants. Ground’s paternal grandfather was either an Irishman or Welshman, who “was unfortunately more of an alcoholic than anything else, which is why my grandmother didn’t keep him around.  

“The only background that I knew was that I was Native American” adds Ground, but “I grew up in a very Italian household.”

As a child, Ground sometimes visited his father, who lived on the Tonawanda Reservation, which occupies parts of Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties. He also visited his mother’s people, who lived on the Onondaga Reservation just south of Syracuse. On such visits, he heard the old stories, Ground says, but much of the rest of the time, he didn’t give his Native American background much thought.

“When you’re a kid,” says Ground, “you don’t think about stuff like that. I played baseball. I rode my bike.” 

A seminal event in Ground’s childhood that has arguably informed his approach to storytelling was a fifth-grade class trip to see a production of “West Side Story” at Artpark, the state-affiliated visual and performing arts complex in Lewiston, Niagara County.

“We had great seats. Literally like fifth-row center,” recalls Ground. “Right in front of me was this amazing traveling production of “West Side Story.” Even as a fifth grader, I thought: ‘Wow, I would like to be involved in something like that.’ So, all through high school I was always in the drama club.” 

Toward the end of high school, he says, “I started to think more about my own identity. I was always different than anyone else around me. It was something that I had an interest in. I was always interested in learning about history and other cultures. It was something that I was interested in almost from an anthropological standpoint, studying myself and my own family.” 

In the mid-1980s, at the age of 18, Ground entered Cornell University as a freshman. Then intending to be a veterinarian, he initially enrolled as an animal science major. He soon changed his mind and his major.

“It’s hard to be a veterinarian. I realized it wasn’t really for me,” says Ground. “I was trying to find my way.”

He graduated in 1991 with a dual major in communication and Native American history. 

The four years he spent as a student in Cornell’s Native American program, says Ground, were something of a revelation, “one of the first times in my life that I was around Native Americans all the time.” 

Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program was then about a decade old. 

“Frank Bonamie, who started the program, was very instrumental in my development and my awareness of things native,” Ground says.

Bonamie is founder and chairman of Ongweoweh Corp., a $150 million loading pallet and packaging management company in Ithaca. Now long retired as a chief of the Cayugas, Bonamie, 93, was then the tribe’s main representative in legal battle to reclaim 64,000 acres of reservation land it had won in a federal treaty but lost because New York did not honor pact.   

“It made me mad that the university was built on our land and they didn’t even have any Native Americans at the school,” Bonamie recalls. “Because of the land claim, I was in the news a lot at the time and so I used that as leverage to get to the (university’s) president. I figured the last thing they wanted was bad publicity about Indians.”

In the university’s Native American program, “there were a lot of students I counseled,” says Bonamie, “so many.” Ground, was “a real standout. I thought he’d go far.” 

Ground names a fellow Native American student who at the time was a teaching assistant, Steve McFadden, as a powerful influence who helped him crystallize his understanding of stories and the role they play in Native American life.

“Steve came from a long line of Mohawk storytellers. Hearing him share the stories, says Ground, “I was trying to find my way. That’s why I changed my major. I really wanted to find a way to teach about history, culture, and I developed this great interest for teaching about Native American history and culture. I realized that using these stories as a way to teach was a very positive way to go about it.”

Storytelling career

Ground’s first job out of college was as a park aide at Ganondagan. The historic site, then in its infancy, was still a project in development.

“There was a layout of a longhouse that had aluminum pipes. That didn’t last very long. The wind blew them down,” Ground recalls. “There were trails and markers. There was a small visitor’s center building. That’s where I worked out of.”

Ground lived in the Bristol Hills some eight miles south of the site. He rode a bike to and from work. The hilly country made the daily trek essentially “uphill both ways,” Jemison says. After a few months, Ground recalls, “I blew my knee out.”

The blown knee was the first of a string of such injuries. 

A few years ago, Ground had surgery to repair degenerative damage to both shoulders. He says the surgeon told him the operation came just in time to prevent a bicep from completely detaching. 

During a storytelling performance last summer, Ground’s left Achilles tendon blew, forcing him to forgo his usual athletic bounds and finish the session sitting on the ground. He says he wasn’t jumping around when the tendon blew. “It just went.” A few months ago, he had an operation to repair the damage. When I met with Ground in September, he was about to start physical therapy, still hobbling around on crutches and wearing a protective boot. He never took time off from storytelling, moving his platform to Zoom during the pandemic and continuing to perform as athletically as he could manage, waving his arms and twisting about if he couldn’t hop and run or jump off a stage.  

Ground lays his injuries off not as much to his storytelling athletics as to a lifetime of other athletic pursuits like bowling, football and lacrosse. Until his repaired Achilles tendon heals, Ground laments, he will have to give up refereeing lacrosse games. “I can’t really run up and down the field like you need to do,” he says. 

When Ground was working at Ganondagan as a just-out-of-school aide, a Seneca storyteller, Marian Miller, who was also there at the time helped him move further along the path he had determined to follow at Cornell.

Miller, who has since passed away, “was a phenomenal storyteller,” says Ground. “The opportunity to sit at her feet and listen to her, being at Ganondagan, hearing these stories, I knew that this was the direction I wanted to move my career into, some kind of non-traditional teaching, working in parks, museums, (where) I could use these stories to teach in a positive way.”

Until 2016, when he went full time as a freelance storyteller, Ground worked at museums including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.; the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave; and Shako:Wi Cultural Center, the Oneida Nation museum in Oneida; the Central New York Living History Museum in Syracuse; and for a children’s museum in Texas. 

Before going out on his own as a full-time freelance storyteller, Ground says, “I would freelance whenever I could. I was also lecturing and teaching. I lectured at Syracuse University before I got married.” His most recent full-time job was as a teacher in the Rochester City School District.

Ground’s marriage ended in divorce. The couple’s daughter, Kayleigh Ground, 20, an RIT sophomore, is a starter for the university’s women’s lacrosse team, a point of pride for Ground. Though her mother was not Native American, Ground says, his daughter “looks more Native American than I do” and identifies as Native American.

The Minnett professorship for Ground is another point of pride. 

“It is a tremendous honor to be nominated,” he says, “to be accepted by the previous professors.” 

For Ground, the professorship is also something of a gift, an opportunity to carry out the task he set for himself: breathing new life into ancient tales and finding new audiences to hear them.

“People are always blown away that we have this history that we still maintain about how we ended up here,” Ground says. “Well, we have a story about that, and we tell it.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Video courtesy of Ganondagan State Historic Site.

One thought on “Breathing new life into ancient tales

  1. This is a fabulous piece about Perry Ground, working in some important history about Native people in this geographic area-then and now! It also speaks to the investment RIT has made in making indigenous people more a part of the RT community and more visible to those who think these are a people of the past. I have often heard the phrase, “We are still here!” Amen to that!

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