Interview with a Siletz Elder

The Elder Experience – An Interview with Tribal Elder Ed Ben

By Teresa Simmons, Vice Chair, Siletz Tribal Arts & Heritage Society

It would be impossible to adequately convey the full story of Edmond Ben’s life in the space available. To say he’s an institution would be an understatement. What I can do is give you a brief outline and a small glimpse of Ed Ben’s journey over his 95 years. I listened intently as I visited with him to gather the material for this article filled with dates and accomplishments. A twinkle in his eye, however, and a bit of a grin were dead giveaways for the occasional humorous memories he shared. It was hard to stay on track from time to time. So here goes:

A long life of sharing, participation, encouragement and observation and the oldest member of the Siletz Tribe, Ed has worn many hats: WWII Navy veteran, member of the Air Force Reserve, logger, Oregon State corrections officer, fine craftsman, orator, husband, brother, friend, and a very proud father.

Ed at age 17 when he entered the Navy, full regalia at the Nesika Illahee Pow Wow, (Top) Ed with his nephew Cristian at Loyalty Days Parade, Ed at the Nesika Illahee Pow Wow and Ed at the Siletz Restoration dancing in the Golden Age category.

The eldest child of Archie Ben and Victoria Butler Ben, Edmond was born in his grandmother Ella Ben’s house on Christmas Day 1927. He was one of seven children: Vicki, Maxine, Virginia (stillborn), Richard (who was killed in a car accident at age 21), Shirley and Ray.

Ed joined the Navy in 1945 at age 17 and was stationed in the Philippines just as WWII was coming to an end. Upon his discharge in 1946, he came back to Siletz and went to work in the logging industry, which was the main source of income in the area at the time.

There were numerous gypo logging outfits in the county and Ed worked for several. Between 1946 and 1950, he was employed by Johnny Essex, Mulkey and Downey, Balderee, the Ring Brothers and Whitey Willis among others. He drove bulldozer for Wilbur Martin and finally between 1950 and 1952 he worked for CD Johnson.

During that time he met his forever love, his wife Dolores. Ed told me they met through one of Dolores’ friends, possibly while he was cruising the main drag in Toledo following a teen dance at the Eagles Lodge. They married in 1948 and lived with his parents for a time before moving to the housing project in Siletz.

With the natural progression of newly wedded bliss, their son Gerald (Butch) was born in 1949 in Toledo followed by son Rod in 1952, the same year that Ed and Dolores moved to Salem. Their youngest son, Ed Jr., joined the family in 1957.

Ed took some business classes after the move and applied for two jobs that were presented to him. Although it was not his first choice of the two, he was hired at the Oregon State Prison as a corrections officer, where he worked until his retirement nearly 30 years later in 1982.

Ed had some harrowing experiences while he was there, two prison riots and fires among them. He was well-liked by the inmates and working together, he and the prisoners who were trapped with him in the riot and fire of 1968 were able to escape the inferno.

Ed’s son, Ed Jr., wrote: “He and several convicts were trapped in a burning building on an upper floor. They were able to break a window that reportedly had shatterproof glass and then cut out metal bars with a saw made to cut wood, not metal. They escaped by going through a small hole in the bars. Convicts below helped by catching the men as they fell to the lower roof. They then helped dad get out of the prison instead of attacking him or taking him hostage, as they had done with other guards. Speaks volumes about the kind of person my father is. In 2019, a book was written called Crime and Corrections: Lessons Learned by a Career Corrections Practitioner by Thomas Toombs, PhD. that had the inmates’ testimonies in it.”

Ed has been active in the events of the Siletz Tribe his entire life. His first memory of dancing with his family was at the home of Johnny Williams when he was perhaps 7 years old. His father, Archie Ben, formed an American Indian dance group that performed all over the state, sometimes representing the Eagles Lodge of which Archie was a member. The lodge provided a truck or a trailer that could be used as a float.

The Ben family and other members of the Tribe often participated in the Loyalty Days Parade in Newport and many others, including the Albany Veteran’s Day parade in which one year they were awarded the Grand Marshal’s Award for their float, This Land is Our Land.

Ed served on the Tribal Council prior to Tribal Restoration. Always willing to speak for the people, Ed was one of a group that traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1976 at the invitation of the U.S. government to the Siletz Tribe. Other Tribes from the Northwest participated, including Warm Springs.

They were housed at Georgetown University and bused to the reflecting pool every day where they danced. His mom and dad, sister Shirley, brother Ray, Delores Pigsley, Pauline Ricks, Katherine Harrison and members of the Bell and Easter families were all there.

Years later, Ed and Alfred “Junior” Lane and four other WWII survivors were invited to return to Washington, D.C., to be part of the dedication of the WWII Memo rial. They were accompanied by Siletz Veterans Representative Tony Molina.

Over the last several years, Ed could be found many, many times dressed in full regalia, carrying the Eagle Staff and leading the Tribal Honor Guard at the opening of events, both Tribal and non-Tribal. His devoted wife Dolores, who passed away last year, accompanied him and was always nearby cheering him on. All three sons followed in the tradition to promote their Tribal heritage. Sadly, son Rod passed away in 2003.

Together, Ed and Dolores hand-crafted literally hundreds of beautiful dentalium necklaces that have been presented to performers at Chinook Winds Casino and dignitaries at various functions and awards. Fine full-dress regalia is among his many other creations.

Ed and Dolores are shown in this five generations photo with their sons
and some of their nine grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.

Ed has always been a strong voice for the Siletz Tribe, recounting the history in great detail. His amazing memory and ability to put voice to the struggles of the Siletz people have served as catalysts in not only enlightening the greater community, but also in reminding the younger generations of the history and the sacrifices of the previous generations. We can and have learned a great deal from him over the years, not just from his words, but also from his deeds.

I asked Ed what he would want to share with the younger generation, and he replied, “If you have the opportunity to go on to school, do it and do it to the best of your ability.”

Thanks, Ed, for all that you do.