A tribute to my grandmother

Published January 2019

A tribute to my grandmother

Hazel Mary Neeley
By: Angela Vermillion
These are a few of the memories that I have of my grandmother, Hazel Neeley, who impacted my life in so many ways. I count myself extremely blessed to have had my grandma for so many years.

My grandmother had no fear. I never saw her with any fear at any time that I had been with her. She told me that when her brothers shot a moose, she would help by breaking a trail in the snow in the middle of nowhere for miles and miles by herself so they could bring the moose home easier. When we were young, she always taught us that spiders were our grandma. When she saw one in the house, we saw her countless times pick the spider up with her hand and take it outside. She never harmed spiders. Another time as an Elder, when a bear was bothering her smokehouse and grandpa was out hunting, she stayed outdoors with a gun for hours until he came home. She was always a rock, never showing fear.

My grandmother prepared me to be ready for danger. She told me many times to always keep a clear path to the door before we go to sleep so that, if there were a fire, we wouldn’t trip. This was deeply instilled in me. She told me to be careful about bears because they will dig a hole at an empty cabin and wait. Sometimes they’ll even walk as a human on two feet as she saw as a young girl.

My grandmother taught me not to waste. She was conservative with her food, money and everything else. She made things last a long time. She was the ultimate recycler. She never threw away anything and found ways to re-purpose things.

She warned me about times of lack and that we should always be prepared. She said to store up food while you can for the winter.

She gave me tips when she recalled memories growing up. She said in the spring time, her mom would use duck fat and apply it to their feet and calves because they didn’t have rubber boots or lotion for the wet ground. The ducks are fat when they first come back, and it was used to help their skin from chaffing.

My grandmother had no fear. I never saw her with any fear at any time that I had been with her.

She took us blueberry picking every year growing up. She taught us how to keep our berries clean. She always let us pick out one candy bar when we went berry picking with her. There was no other time that I remember her buying us candy bars except on our berry-picking trips.

She taught us many things from our culture. She taught us how to make “c’encaes” from cranberries, cut fish, tan moose skin and many other things. Growing up she used the word, “Engii” a lot, which means simply to not do those things and it instilled respect. Such as: “It’s Engii to eat with one shoe on and one shoe off.” This was so that we respected food. She also taught my brother and me how to have a snare line for rabbits and skin the rabbits. She used to talk a lot about working with rabbit skin as a child when the lamp would go out, her mom would have her kids work on rabbit skin to get it softened. Grandma taught me how to sew and bead as a young girl. She also taught this at Gakona Elementary School, where I attended.

She taught us to play a card game called “snerts” and we learned math keeping score. We spent many weekend nights playing snerts with her growing up and even as adults. We played with her even two nights before she passed. We have such great memories around her table. We saw her many times stop the snerts game to pray for an immediate situation that came up.

Traditional Chief Ben Neeley and wife, Hazel,

She was the one who always came to us when we were sick. She brought water and juice and a cold wash rag. She didn’t show a lot of affection to us when we were young, except when we were sick. I believe that if she grew up in my generation, she would probably be a nurse or doctor because of her steadiness, hard work and compassion for us when we were sick. She was a serious grandma until we grew up. As adults, she was less strict and laughed with us. And now I see her being very affectionate with her great-grandchildren immediately and always smiling or laughing with them. I will miss watching her face light up when she sees her great grandchildren or babies.

She was also a janitor at Gakona School when I was in elementary school. We stayed after school with her many times just to help her. She took pride in her job. I remember one time she gave me a razor to peel off excess paint on the windows. As a young girl, I thought no one is going to look that closely at the windows. But I remember this very clearly because it instilled paying attention to detail and working hard at your job.

My grandpa and grandma visited their friends a lot and took us with them. That was a special time. My grandparents’ generation took time for each other. There was no texting back then but to physically visit.

My grandma was always busy. She never kept herself idle. Her projects were beading and knitting. When we were little, she made us one pair of mukluks and knitted us socks. She was strict but caring.

Her birthday cards to us were always special. She would add a lot of stickers to the card and it felt full of love.

I clearly remember the day I left to drive off to college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I stopped to say goodbye to my grandparents. Grandma said, “Wait.” I waited a few minutes, and she came out with an envelope which I counted later. It was filled with all kinds of bills and was an even $500 in cash. She invested into my education, which deeply impacted me. I veered off and left college without a degree. Many years later, her investment was always in the back of my mind, which gave me the motivation to finish my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. With her investment, and knowing it wasn’t just five $100 bills but many bills to add up to $500, I knew she put a lot of thought into it and I just could not drop out. I had to finish. The first time, I went back to college after 10 years of dropping out, I called her and asked her to pray for me as I was writing my first paper and very nervous. Her prayer was similar to her prayer for me in her last days. She said, “Lord, give her the power and strength to do what she needs to do.”

During our adult lives, we started a new tradition playing Chinese gift exchange at Christmas time. Grandma always brought a present for her and grandpa to play. One year she picked the present and unwrapped these slippers that were furry and big and fell right down on the floor by her feet. It was slippers that looked like bear feet with fur and claws. Grandpa and all of us laughed so hard, mostly because Grandma was shocked and speechless.

My grandma taught us to do the Lord’s work. She took pride in helping the Wrangell Bible Conference, which happened one week every summer in Copper Center. She was the treasurer. She had me and others help her count the money. My grandparents also took us before it started to help clean up the church grounds, the kitchen and the church. They loved contributing to the conference. I also remember fondly the times of church communion when they were pastors at Gulkana Chapel. After church, as children, we would go to her place and drink all the remaining juice from the little communion cups, which was a nice treat. We also had to help wash those little cups. She was always quick to pray immediately for every request and, even in her last days in her sleep, she was praying out loud. We also witnessed her reading the Bible countless times, even two days before she passed.

My grandmother was always busy. She never kept herself idle.

My grandma witnessed so much change in her lifetime. When she was born, there were no roads or highways, or running water or electricity, or telephones. I can remember when the first cellphones came out and they were big and heavy. Several of us grandchildren had to carry her cellphone for her when she went on trips. More recently, she had an iPad and had us recording Indian songs and family events. One time, it ran out of memory, and I remember we were trying to explain it to her why it couldn’t record anymore. It’s amazing what she saw in her almost 93 years of life in Alaska.

My grandma was humble, without an education, but heavily impacted my life. She foremost taught me to walk with the Lord and work for Him. She taught me to work hard and pray for everything. She instilled strength by the life she lived. She taught me to respect with our culture, but she also deeply valued education. I’m forever impacted by her teachings.

Hazel Mary Neeley, 1926 – 2018

Hazel Mary Neeley, 92 years old, entered Glory Land on Nov. 11, 2018. Hazel was born to Oscar and Balico Ewan at the Gulkana Historical Village.

Hazel grew up without electricity or running water. She grew up in the nomadic lifestyle of the Ahtna people. She lived at Ewan Lake, at her homestead, at fish camp and at the Gulkana Historical Village. She was known for her sharpshooting skills. Grandpa said she was always a “sharp shooter.” She shot many wild game during her lifetime and her last moose harvested with a single shot was when she was 84 years young.

Hazel married Ben Neeley and had eight children. She worked as a Sunday school teacher as well as the treasurer for the Gulkana Chapel and the Wrangell Mountain Bible Conference for many years.

Hazel worked as a homemaker, raising her children while her husband worked out of the area at camps. After the children were raised, she worked as a custodian for Gakona Elementary School until she retired. She also worked as a culture teacher in the elementary school, teaching beading.

She is survived by her daughters, Lorraine (Nick), Roberta and Eveline; son, Ray; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.