Ahtna Traditional First Chief Ben Neeley passed away Saturday at his home in Gulkana. He was 99.
Ben Neeley was born in 1914 to Tom Neeley and Fanny Ewan at a time when the Ahtna people still practiced a primarily nomadic lifestyle, traveling throughout the Ahtna region following traditional food sources. As a child, Neeley did not attend school. Instead, he learned the traditional Ahtna way of life from people like his father . It wasn’t until much later in life that “Ben” was adopted as his English name.
In 1950, Neeley married Hazel Ewan, with whom he had 8 children. He worked on the Glenn Highway, the Tok cutoff, and the road from Ft. Richardson to Valdez. He was heavy equipment operator for the Alaska Department of Transportation before retiring in 1977.
In 2006, Ahtna Elders selected him as the new Ahtna Traditional Chief after the death of Chief Harry Johns, Sr.
As Chief, he represented the Ahtna way of life. His words are remembered for their honesty and wisdom. A humble and generous man, Neeley had a simple yet powerful message for his people: love one another, try your best to get along, and work together.
Neeley is survived by 16 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.