Southern Ute Indian Tribe Spiritual Leader Eddie Bent Box Walks On,
Indian Country Today
I first met Eddie Box Sr. over the telephone in April of 2006 while I was living in Durango, Colorado and working at the Sky Ute Casino for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. Eddie owned a small cabin on the Southern Ute Reservation in Ignacio that I noticed was sitting empty. I decided to see if I could rent the vacant dwelling to cut down on my drive time to and from work. After asking around, I found out that the property belonged to Edward Bent Box Sr. aka “Red Ute,” however, I was warned by all that I did not want to live there.
“The place is haunted,” I was told by a co-worker in a matter-of-fact way. “Nobody will live there because that’s where Eddie Box lived and his wife died in that house!” This sentiment was not exclusive to tribal members, everyone I spoke to (Zuni, Ute, Navajo, and Anglo) warned me that Red Ute was a very powerful Ute Shaman and bad things would happen to me if I tried to live there. I was intrigued by everyone’s fear of the quiet wood-framed house and amazed everyone was absolutely certain that I would be at risk if I dared to make it my home. I had no idea of how to get in touch with Eddie Box, but I was determined to find out if I could. Then, out of the blue only days later, Betty Box, Red Ute’s daughter in-law walked up to me and handed me a slip of paper with Eddie’s Asheville, North Carolina phone number on it. I was thrilled by the possibility of losing almost two hours windshield time each day on my commute. I did not delay giving Eddie Box a call.
Eddie’s wife Diane picked up the phone, I introduced myself and explained why I was calling; she listened patiently then told me, “Hold on, you will have to talk to Eddie.” A minute or two later Eddie got on the phone; whereby, I introduced myself and stated my business as quickly as I could. There was a short pause after I told him I wanted to rent his house, and then Eddie gave me the scare of my life, “Are you white?” he blurted out. I didn’t know how to respond and fear quickly replaced my ambition; it was me that filled the phone-line with silence. My mind raced through questions: Why would that matter? Does he not like white people? Why does he care? I took a deep breath and admitted to my prospective landlord that, “Yes…I am white.” Eddie’s demeanor immediately changed, “Good, sure I will rent it to you. You draw up the papers and mail them to me; my wife Diane will give you our address.” And then he hung up.
It has been six years since we had that conversation, and although I never was able to move into the house, I am glad I made that call that day because Eddie Box Sr. and his wife Diane ended up becoming my good friends. Now Eddie is gone, his time to take the journey came on September 18, 2012 at Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. He passed of natural causes at 92 years of age. He was a storyteller, a patriot and a priest that loved all people, our land, and Mother Earth. Eddie’s core philosophy was that all people must understand that we are stewards of the earth, and we should only take what we can use because the choices we make affect the legacy we leave our children, and their children. Eddie told me we must love all people because we are all the same, and it is the responsibility of all people to make offerings in return for the blessings received in this life. Eddie Box Sr. was a blessing in my life and the stories he told me over the years his gift to me. In return, my offering to him will be to share his stories with everyone. It is very important to me that I convey the care and love that surrounded Eddie’s final days here before he took his journey beyond our physical existence.
On the morning of September 13, Diane noticed Eddie was weak and his eyes seemed to be drooping. She helped him sit up in his bed and they sang the Southern Ute and Northern Ute Sunrise songs together. Eddie couldn’t walk by himself to the breakfast table and for the first time Diane had to help him eat his breakfast. She knew he was not his usual self and called 911 and an ambulance arrived to transport him to Mission Hospital about 9:30 a.m. Eddie’s vital signs were stable in the emergency room and the staff began running tests.
It was determined after a CAT scan that he had suffered a very small hemorrhagic stroke and a small blood vessel had ruptured near the center of his brain. Eddie went to dialysis at 2:30 p.m. as scheduled and was then admitted to the hospital for observation. Diane stayed with him during the next five days and slept in the chair next to his bed every night. He never required oxygen or a feeding tube, but did need help using the restroom. Eddie’s legs were weak so the hospital staff planned to discharge him to a rehab center for a few days so he would be less likely to suffer a fall upon returning home. His doctors expected him to make a full recovery.
On Tuesday morning, Diane recalls the RN still on duty from the night shift was a young Native American woman named Kaye. She fed Eddie some applesauce with the medication that was prescribed before his dialysis treatments and asked Eddie if he needed anything else. His reply was, “I need a rub-down!” Everyone shared a laugh. Eddie and Diane exchanged loving words shared by happily married couples and she told him she would be back at lunchtime after his treatment. That was to be the last time the two would ever speak to each other. Diane went home to feed the two house cats and catch up on her domestic chores. She fell asleep at about 9:30 a.m. and was conscious of a very cold and hard rain that was falling outside. She received a call from Mission Hospital about making arrangements for Eddie’s rehab; they wanted her to select a facility. Diane was getting ready to go back to the hospital when Eddie’s dialysis doctor called with the news that Eddie had passed away peacefully in his sleep during his dialysis treatment. The doctor said Eddie’s heart had stopped and he had died of natural causes so an autopsy would not be necessary. The news of Eddie’s death was a great shock. Diane remembers feeling like her life was being washed away by the cold rain.
Instinctively Diane gathered the items she would need to keep her promises to her husband. She quickly packed Eddie’s paint bag, eagle whistle, eagle fan, and Sundance Sheet for his body, which was to be brought back to his hospital room. She was met by the hospital chaplain and a young pregnant woman who was in charge of Decedent Affairs at the hospital. She immediately mixed up the red earth paint and painted her husband’s body. She then dressed Eddie in his underwear and socks because she said he was a very shy person. Diane put Eddie’s eagle whistle around his neck and his eagle fan in his hands and with the help of the pregnant staffer she cloaked him in his Sundance Sheet and wrapped him in a cotton quilt given to Eddie by the late Northern Ute Elder, Paul Eaton. They then placed the wrapped corpse in a body bag and onto a steel cart used to transport the deceased. They placed a rectangular green screen over the cart and she followed him until they had to part ways. Diane said she always walked slightly behind her husband in life and never forgot her place in his death.
The next morning Diane had an appointment with the funeral director of Asheville Mortuary Services. Eddie had written a letter of last instructions at the office of Maynes, Bradford and Shipps before they had left Colorado and moved to Asheville. He told his attorney he wished to be cremated and his ashes should be either scattered above the buffalo figure formed by a grove of pine trees on La Plata Mountain in Durango, Colorado, or in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Eddie left that choice to Diane. He did not want his body to be publicly viewed, nor did he want, “People weeping and wailing over my body.” And most importantly he didn’t want, “people fighting over his remains.” He said that he wanted to leave this world the same way he came into it, in a very humble way. Diane was to leave Eddie’s body undisturbed for three days and then have his body cremated on the fourth day after sunrise.
During the next three days Diane’s friends and family brought her food and took her out on short walks down to the French Broad River Park, and along the Swannanoa River. She didn’t sleep more than two hours on any night. Finally on Saturday September 22, the day of the funeral service had arrived, Diane awoke at 5:30 a.m. and bathed and put on her traditional outfit. She had made the blouse, skirt, beaded belt, purse, Gourd Dance shawl, etc. She warmed up a hand drum so it sounded good and then drove down to the mortuary. It was the Autumnal Equinox.
The funeral director and his staff had prepared everything the day before. Diane looked up at the sky to the north where she saw the planet Venus and then to the south where she saw the planet Jupiter as the first rays of the sun were beginning to emerge from the east between the two stars, the Swannanoa River was behind her to the west. She stood behind a glass window that gave a view of the crematorium; she had put her Gourd Dance shawl on backwards like Eddie had instructed her with the blue section over her heart instead of the red. Then, exactly at sunrise, 7:19 a.m., the funeral staff placed Eddie’s body in the furnace. Diane began singing the Southern Ute Sunrise Song, which she followed by the Northern Ute Sunrise Song. Then she sang Eddie’s Capote grandfather, Henry Box’s song and then the Buffalo Song. She sang several of her favorite Northern Ute songs, and then she sang the Ute Mountain Ute Closing Song.
“I felt such joy and peace while singing for my husband,” Diane recalled. “I did not feel like crying at all. I knew that Eddie was pleased with me because I had done everything he had asked me to do in life and also in death.” She presented the funeral director and his wife with a Pendleton Robe and one of Eddie’s handmade cedar flutes. She told them that it was Eddie giving them something for helping him to fulfill his last wishes not her. She went home and made a small breakfast of a scrambled egg and small piece of bread. At 2 p.m. the funeral home called to let her know she could retrieve Eddie’s ashes. She placed them on Eddie’s bed in the center of his elder’s blanket and put fresh sage around the box with a Bull Durham tobacco bag on the top. Diane covered the ashes with a colorful weaving from the Southwest that had been given to Eddie by a Ute Mountain elder during a Sundance. Diane said, “Eddie was born on April 1 and it did not escape me that in the end he fooled them all! Including me! Just wait until I see him on the other side!”
I don’t think it is a coincidence that he passed four days before the Autumnal Equinox; I think Eddie Bent Box planned the whole thing. I know he would be very pleased that President Barack Obama designated Chimney Rock as a National Monument because he loved the place where he grew up. Eddie was not the first to give depth and weight to the power of the celestial cycles, the Anasazi Indians built Chimney Rock and Chaco Canyon because they held a similar connection to the earth and the heavens; they also made flutes.
Diane plans to create a nonprofit for the Edward Bent Box Museum & Cultural Center to house Red Ute’s collection of Native American artifacts and share his lifelong philosophy, “Take only what you need and leave the rest for our children, and their children.” She is in the process of applying for the “Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections” grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.