WELL-GROUNDED — Perry Ground told stories and spoke to S-GI students about Haudenosaunee culture. Photo by Joshua Gordon.
SPRINGVILLE — Perry Ground, of the Onondaga Turtle Clan, donned his feathered Gustoweh, ribboned shirt and buckskin leggings to explain to a group of seventh-graders why, exactly, rabbits have long hind legs and ears.
“We use stories to explain the world around us,” said Ground.
During an animated morning presentation in the Springville-Griffith Institute middle school library, Ground incorporated the setting in his storytelling: A chair became a perch for a chipmunk and a student in the front row, at least for a moment, became a rabbit.
“I try to get the kids involved. While I’m pulling on a student’s leg, maybe they’re [shy], but when they leave and they’re talking to their friends, they’re saying, ‘well, I got to be the rabbit!’”
On Nov. 20, as part of their social studies curriculum, S-GI seventh- and fourth-graders heard Ground tell stories and talk about Haudenosaunee history and culture.
“Haudenosaunee,” Ground explained, means, “the people who built the long house.” He noted that “Iroquois” – a familiar term that refers to the confederacy of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and, later, Tuscarora nations – comes from an Algonquin word meaning “snake people.”
Haudinosaunee is a word still used today.
“This is not some study of history, not some ancient past,” said Ground. “Native Americans still exist in the 21st century; our culture is very important to us. Maybe we don’t experience it in the same way now, but it’s still important to us.”
Ground said he wanted to spark interest in a living culture. “Hopefully people go away wanting to know more.”
Ground told students some of his family history, which segued into a discussion about Onondaga matrilineal and European patrilineal customs. Marriage, divorce and family ties were – and still are – a part of Native American life, he said.
“We are human beings. All the same things that happened to other human beings happened to us, too!”
Ground said he is invited to speak some 40-50 times each year. “I tell stories at museums, parks, festivals – I’ve been all over the world,” he said, including a recent stay in Croatia, where he was filmed for a documentary. Performing there “was almost like busking,” he remembered.
The storyteller said he loves what he does, but it runs deeper than personal gratification. “It’s who I am. We always said the Creator gave us instructions. I strongly feel that my instructions are to be a teacher, an educator; not necessarily for our own people, but for other people.”
So, why does the rabbit have long hind legs and ears?
As Ground told it, when the Creator pulled on rabbit’s legs to make them longer, “we know that when we pull on one end of something, we’re pulling on the other end, also.”