Perry Ground doesn’t really like the word assimilation.
A Native American and a member of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, Ground will tell you the term has become a bit irrelevant in the 21st century. The host and one of the main attractions at this weekend’s 35th Iroquois Indian Festival at the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, Ground is a longtime museum educator and teacher recently turned freelance storyteller.
‘Iroquois Indian Festival’
WHERE: Iroquois Indian Museum, 324 Caverns Road, Howes Cave
WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
HOW MUCH: $10, $5 for children 5-17, under 5 free
MORE INFO: www.iroquoismuseum.org, 296-8949
He actually began his career working at the Iroquois Indian Museum in 1992 after getting a degree in communications from Cornell University, and has since worked at places such as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., the Children’s Museum in Houston and the Shakowi Cultural Center in Oneida. He most recently worked as a school teacher in the Rochester area, where he still lives.
Ground will introduce acts, including the Akwesasne Women Singers and Sky Dancers, and spin his own tales of Iroquois Indian history and culture at the two-day event which begins Saturday at 10 a.m.
Q: How long have you been interested in the history and heritage of Native Americans?
A: I did not grow up on the reservation, but my mother was an Onondaga and my father a Seneca who still lived on the reservation and I would visit him. My parents were divorced. When I was a child it really wasn’t that important to me. When I was young I was more interested in playing baseball and riding my bike.
As I got older and into high school it became much more important to me, and by the time I went to Cornell I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. It was all kind of new to me, because while I visited the reservation, my family did not practice our traditional religion.
Q: What is the No. 1 issue facing Native Americans today?
A: For me as an educator, I want to teach people that Native Americans still exist in the 21st century, and that we exist as 21st century people. I want people to know that our customs and traditions are still important to us, but for some reason people seem to think we stopped evolving.
I’m talking to you on my cell phone looking at my laptop computer while we talk, but the first question I’m asked at festivals and in the classroom by students and teachers is, ‘do you still live in a longhouse?’ No, we live in the 21st century. Our culture is important. It tells us who we are and it’s important that we express that. But like everybody else, we’re in the 21st century.
Q: Do you think they’ll be Native American reservations in 50 years in this country?
A: Reservations are land that was guaranteed us through treaty rights and other negotiations with state and federal governments. So, I think there will continue to be reservations in some form in different parts of the country. But that’s different than assimilation. It’s complicated. If I wear jeans and a sweater am I assimilated? It’s a very individual thing. I have family members who don’t care at all about our language, our tradition or even being a Native American. They don’t care to hear my stories.
And then I have people in my family who are the exact opposite. They practice the traditional religion and work to maintain our language. I’m changing with the times, just like everybody else, and I guess that’s what I want non-Native Americans to understand. Using a word like assimilation, well, what does it mean?
Q: Do your stories come from the Iroquois oral tradition?
A: I remember hearing stories my grandfather told when I was a kid, but he was a Methodist minister his entire life. So I heard Bible stories and some traditional stories. I’ve heard a lot of stories, and I can tell you that there are only a few I’ve learned exclusively from books. It got important to me as I got older and that’s when I really started to listen, to really hear them. The stories were always all around me, and I’ve heard different versions.
The Big Dipper, or the Great Bear as we call it, I’ve heard as many as a dozen versions of that story. Some people, Native Americans, have written it down, and I’ve read versions from older books during the turn of the century. There are different versions but I don’t think of them as contradictory. They’re just different. Everyone has their own style of storytelling. That’s the beauty of it. I try to be engaging and get the audience involved. You have to pay attention because I might be coming for you next.
Q: How do you feel about Native American involvement in casinos?
A: There have been Native American casinos for a while, and now New York is going to have state casinos. I am neutral on casinos. I think the discussion is past whether or not to have casinos, it’s become how many there should be.
Casino gambling has been a means to an end for Native Americans, a way to promote self-sufficiency, and gaming of some kind has existed in our culture for quite some time. I don’t have a moral objection to it. As an individual I would have been fine with whatever the tribe wanted. And, as an individual, I might drive to Saratoga tomorrow to see the races.
Q: What about Native Americans and politics?
A: Again, it’s an individual thing, but if you’re a Native American and you’re interested in American politics, I would think you might be a Democrat. If you look at the Obama administration, they’ve put money into an effort to improve the quality of education for all people, particularly Native Americans.
But people feel differently, and while it seems like most Republicans don’t care today, if you go back to the Nixon administration he got a law passed that was beneficial to Native Americans. We also have our own internal politics, our tribal council, and some are only interested in that. But we do realize that our lives are effected by county, state and federal government policies.
Q: Why are you a member of the board at the Iroquois Indian Museum?
A: I’ve been there many, many times, and to me it is a very special place. It does a lot of very good things, and it’s also very unique because it tends to focus on contemporary Native American art. A lot of places will show you historic art that was done years ago, centuries, but there is a lot of great art that has been done by Native Americans in the past 30 years. There is beautiful work being created today and the museum realizes the value of that work.
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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Categories: Life and Arts