Ahtna chief Ben Neeley dies at age 99

Tegan Hanlon

Ben Neeley, the traditional first chief of Alaska's Ahtna region, died early Saturday morning at the age of 99 in his home in Gulkana, about 190 miles northeast of Anchorage.

Neeley was born in 1914 to Tom Neeley and Fanny Ewan. He had three sisters and one brother. Neeley's father gave him the Indian name, "Tinighitiisen," which means "to keep your mind focused."

He married Hazel Ewan in 1950. The couple have eight children, 16 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Neeley worked with the Alaska Department of Transportation, retiring from a position as a permanent heavy equipment operator in 1977.

In 2006, he was selected as the Traditional Chief of Ahtna, Inc., headquartered in Glennallen. Ahtna, Inc. has more than 1,700 shareholders and homelands that span the Cantwell and Copper River regions.

People who knew Neeley remember him as honest, wise, gracious and loving.

"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," said Nick Jackson, chairman of the Ahtna Inc. board in a prepared statement.

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.