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Ahtna Traditional First Chief Ben Neeley Passes Away at 99

Ben Neeley

Ben Neeley

Photo courtesy of Ahtna

Anchorage, Alaska – Ahtna Traditional First Chief Ben Neeley passed away early Saturday morning, January 4, at his home in the Native Village of Gulkana, surrounded by his family. He was 99.

“Ben always said that he was going to heaven when he died,” said Nick Jackson, Chairman of the Ahtna, Incorporated Board. “He would say that when you go to heaven, you’ll be lost in joy. You’re just absent from the body but present with the Lord.”

“Losing our Chief is a very big loss,” Nick continued. “But it’s not only our loss. It’s everybody’s loss here in the Copper Valley, for our whole community, as well as for all who knew him. We know he’s in a better place, but our Chief will still be greatly missed.”

“Chief Neeley was the most gracious, humble, loving leader who taught us repeatedly to love one another; to never walk by our brothers without saying hello,” added Michelle Anderson, President of Ahtna, Incorporated. “His personal advice to me when I stepped into this position was this, “Always put your people before yourself. Take care of your people.” Along with sharing the word of God, Chief Neeley shared our traditional values and teachings every chance he had and reminded us where we came from and who came before us. It was an honor to serve this great Chief.”

Ben Neeley was born in 1914 to parents Tom Neeley and Fanny Ewan, and had 3 sisters and 1 brother. At the time of his birth, the Ahtna people still practiced a primarily nomadic lifestyle, traveling extensively throughout the Ahtna region while following traditional food sources such as moose, caribou, and salmon. As a child growing up, Ben did not attend school or obtain a formal education. Instead, he learned the traditional Ahtna way of life from people like his father, who also gave Ben his Indian name, “Tinighitiisen”, which means “to keep your mind focused”. It wasn’t until much later in life that “Ben” was adopted as his English name.

In 1950, Ben married Hazel Ewan, with whom he had 8 children. At the time of his passing, Ben’s family includes 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

Ben’s first job was working as a crew member to help clear land for the Alaska Highway System during World War II. Amongst other projects, he had also worked on the Glenn Highway, the Tok cutoff, and the road from Ft. Richardson to Valdez. Ben was a seasonal and then permanent heavy equipment operator for the Alaska Department of Transportation before retiring in 1977.

In July of 2006, in a meeting held amongst the Ahtna Elders to select a new Ahtna Traditional Chief following the death of Traditional Chief Harry Johns, Sr., Ben was selected alongside his long-time friend Fred Ewan (who became Traditional Second Chief) to become the new cultural leader of his people. As Chief, Ben was a representative of the Ahtna way of life. He was often invited to and attended various events throughout the state and abroad, usually being asked to speak first. His words are remembered for their honesty and wisdom; his advice was cherished and heeded. A humble and generous man, Ben had a simple yet powerful message for his people: love one another, try your best to get along, and work together.

Ben’s family would like to express their gratitude for the well-wishes from friends, family, and others during the family’s time of sorrow.

For more information regarding Chief Neeley, including details on funeral arrangements and donations, please contact Nick Jackson at njackson@ahtna.net or (907) 229-8814.

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