I am warned ahead of time that Ron Evans is mysterious. He rarely does interviews and doesn’t have photographs. I’m so surprised when he agrees to meet that I email back to ask, “Are you sure he wants to talk to me?” I jot down a few questions I have for the Métis storyteller, mythteller, and oral historian from the west, and realize that he’ll probably answer questions I would never think to ask. I toss the questions out. All I can do is go with an open mind and an intent to learn who he is and why he does what he does.
As I quickly find out, Ron isn’t that mysterious in person. He wears a welcoming smile and a brightly colored shirt. He has a good handshake. He is accompanied by his student and friend Jose Brown who is also extremely interesting! While I initially begin asking how he got started as a storyteller, I find out that “storyteller” isn’t even the right word. He doesn’t tell stories. What he does is something else altogether.
Rachel Levine (RL): When did you first decide to become a storyteller?
Ron Evans (RE): Well, to a certain extent, I didn’t. What’s called “stories” in English is in our culture the way we express things and teach things. From before I can remember, I was listening, hearing, absorbing things. When I was still a boy, I joined our medicine society. One of its roles is preserving the tellings that are important to our community or for our nation’s survival or identity. They need to be passed on accurately. It’s essential to have the details right. You’re only supposed to tell those things if you are trained to tell them. This is one reason, for example, that elders can go into a land claims court today and be very specific about what members of the community did 200 years ago in some particular spot. It isn’t left to random telling. It’s not just “so and so said this.” It’s passed on. You have to train and in a Western sense and pass tests. You don’t have permission to tell it, until you pass the elders who hold it to their satisfaction. So I launched into that at a fairly early age.
RL: Are you now passing on the tradition as well?
RE: I haven’t been able to yet. There have been reasons where I haven’t been able to be around some of the young people at the moment. It’s something I want to do. I don’t have anyone right now that I’m training. But I’m one of only a number of people. It is my responsibility to pass it on. People sit and listen to me… so it happens a bit that way. The formal training has to be done in the medicine society.
RL: Can you explain more about the medicine society? What do you mean by “medicine”?
RE: We use the word medicine in a different way. I’m so used to it.
Jose Brown (JB): It’s about use of power. It can be used in many ways, healing. It’s used in ceremony…
RE: Is there an English term… that can replace it?
JB: We have religion, but it’s not like that.
RL: What about to join the medicine society? Is it something you are appointed to or do you choose to join?
RE: You have to ask to participate. No one can appoint you. It’s part of how our culture works. You have to demonstrate to their satisfaction that this isn’t an idle request to join the medicine society. You’re interrogated a bit about it. It’s an intensive training over many years. They’re not interested in wasting their time on someone who think it might be fun for awhile. Children don’t join normally, though there’s no rule or age thing. Usually people join it later on. I was maybe 10 or 12.
RL: (To Jose) Are you a member?
JB: You have to speak the language
RE: All instruction is in our own language.
RL: How do you decide what to tell? Does it change?
RE: The stories in a sense always change, but only in the sense of what you might emphasize or not, according to who you’re talking to and why. You never change anything factual. That’s part of why it requires training for many stories. They have to be passed on appropriately. Any change is in style and presentation, but not in the structure of the story. I haven’t the faintest idea what I want to tell at the festival. It’s our way of expressing ourselves. Tonight, because it’s a very set time with each teller given 15 minutes, the arrangement is that I’ll go on last. That way, what other tellers have told will have triggered something in me something to say.
The way I tell people, when I explain about it, it’s how we explain things, whether it’s our history, spiritual beliefs, our way of doing things on the land, anything. I tell people if you want to shut me up, say, “Tell me a story.” That would be like going up to someone and saying, “Talk.” What do they want to hear about? For me, it is how I respond to a question or an issue or what’s happening.
There’s no word for story in our language.
JB: As someone who is British originally, and came from my culture into his, when I first heard the stories, they were strange to me. When I first started studying, [Ron] gave me a lot of stories. They weren’t like anything I ever encountered. They made me feel. People from Western culture, we go with our head and try to understand the story. With these, you’re going to get a different sensation. It’s going to go in you and work on you. It may be a week or ten weeks. It can change your life. It changed my life. One of the things that changed my life is hearing these stories. When [Ron] is telling in front of a group of people, the stories are alive. They find people in the audience that need what that story is about. It can be helping them through grief or things they are encountering.
RE: Even sometimes in a crowd, I will be on stage telling story to one person. I won’t know that person, never see them, never see them again. I have a sense they need to hear it. I will know I’m right because of their expressions. I see people with shocked impressions on their face; “How can they be talking about this at that moment?” For us, a lot of storytelling if it’s not historical, it’s spiritual. But spiritual is a word like medicine that we use in a different way. It’s not religion. Most of my elders, I would hear them say we never had a religion. As I’m older, I say the same things now. What we feel is the most important thing. It isn’t about religious concepts, it’s about being as 100%-real-human-being as possible. It has nothing to do with approval of a god or gods, or where you go to heaven or not. What kind of human being are you, how do you live out that human-ness, how do you find your way into it and through all that (what I call) “brainwashing” we acquire. Stories are a powerful vehicle for finding your way through it. You’re hearing the words and having experiences because of that story. Yeah, it’s a very spiritual thing, but hesitate to use the word because of its religious connotation.
With Jose, when I started teaching her, she was puzzling or wrestling with something, so naturally I told her a story. At some point, she said, “There’s nothing you have to understand. We analyze stories. We don’t explain with stories.” I’ve never forgotten that. It was an insight into western culture. It explains so many things that puzzled me — that analyzing.
RL: Do you have a favorite?
RE: It wouldn’t make any more sense to have a favorite story than a favorite conversation or explanation. They’re there for the telling, according to what needs to be. I know thousands of stories. Not one of them is filed in my mind as a story.
My usual approach to invite people to ask questions about my culture and my life, whatever they think might be pertinent. In responding, the answers come out as stories. I almost got into a fight with a doctor a few years ago. I was sent to a specialist and I wanted to tell him what was wrong. He interrupts me as I try to explain. I was answering with the story of what was wrong. He wanted fact fact fact. What’s that got to do with anything? How does it affect my life, when does it happen? It wasn’t just a story. I didn’t know how to lay it out fact fact fact. That’s not how my mind works.
RL: Do you want to mention any of the elders who passed the tradition to you? Anyone specific you’d like to mention?
RE: The elders who passed the traditions to me… It’s a long tradition of many elders, many many elders. I wouldn’t be how I am without them. I wouldn’t be alive without them. Growing up as a half-breed in the west in the 1940s and ’50s, it’s not easy. A lot of friends from those days are dead now. Some were murdered, some drank themselves to death. One reason I got through the way I did was because of those elders and the things they taught me. They’re about being a human, they’re not moralizing, they’re not religious. They’re telling you something about being a human being. Without all that, I would have gone same way as some of those friends. So those elders are special to me even though they’re gone the long time. They got it from elders themeselves. One of the wonderful things about it… When I was a boy around 12 or 13, I spent a lot of time with one old man in particular. I think I was 13 when he died, and he was over 100 years old. He had grown up with a couple of elders of that age. That meant that back then he could tell me what they told him personally about our migration out of the east in 1780s and 90s. He was there. He participated in it. With one elder between me and him, I hear this first hand account of what took place 200 years before. This is how it works, it goes back and back and back. I tell it differently when I’m telling it in public because they don’t know who I’m talking about. But with my own people, I’ll say “he and she received it from so and so.” We can go back hundreds of years, who passed it down and what family line.
RL: Anything else you’d like to say?
RE: It’s about them what you share. I think performing to a great extent is about the performer. A good performer responds to the audience. When it’s telling and explaining and answering, it’s completely about them, what they are are, what they need to learn, what are they interested in. It’s not passive. Questions can trigger a storm sometimes. Maybe a question tells me this person is oblivious to what our people are suffering. Or they have a false, racist view. It might be a tough answer that comes with that story. It’s about me and I’m responding to that, but it’s also about them, about the listener.
This comes from a culture when there was no teleivson, no radio, no books. I literally can sit and talk for hours. I know stories that take a few days to tell. The problem is for me talking too long.
Ron Evans and Jose Brown are appearing at the Quebec Intercultural Storytelling Festival. For details on events and times, click HERE. It’s a special opportunity to spend time in the presence of an elder. Specifically Ron Evans will be speaking on October 20 — Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont: a Métis elder tells stories of the Riel Rebellion, Stories and Myths from the Métis on October 22, Wesakechak the Trickster on October 23, Stories and Songs from the First Peoples on October 23 with Jose Brown, and The Métis Meet the Mi’kmaq on October 24. Jose makes a final appearance at the Marathon du conte on October 25.