Ahtna Traditional First Chief Ben Neeley spent the better part of six decades preaching the gospel and working to help people in his community.

Neeley died surrounded by family the morning of Saturday, Jan. 4, at his home in the Native Village of Gulkana.

He was 99.

“Losing our chief is a very big loss,” said Nick Jackson, chairman of Ahtna, Inc. “It’s not only our loss. It’s everybody’s loss here in the Copper Valley, for our whole community.

“We know he’s in a better place, but our Chief will still be greatly missed.”

When Neely was born in 1914, Ahtna people commonly practiced a nomadic lifestyle, travelling around the region and relying on the area’s land and waters.

He did not attend school. Instead he learned traditional Ahtna ways of life from people including his father, Tinighitiisen, from whom he derived his Indian name.

In 1950, Neeley married Hazel Ewan. The couple had eight children together, and he had 16 grandchildren at the time of his death.

During World War II, he helped clear land for the Alaska Highway System, and he later worked on the Glenn Highway, Tok cutoff and the road from Fort Richardson to Valdez. He retired from the Alaska Department of Transportation in 1977.

In July 2006, Ahtna elders chose Neeley for a leadership role following the death of Traditional Chief Harry Johns, Sr.

“His personal advice to me when I stepped into this position was this, ‘Always put your people before yourself,’ said Michelle Anderson, president of Ahtna, Inc. “’Take care of your people.’”