X̱’unei Lance Twitchell sits next to a fire at a celebration of life ceremony hosted at the University of Southeast Alaska’s Noyes Pavilion in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely Saturday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

X̱’unei Lance Twitchell sits next to a fire at a celebration of life ceremony hosted at the University of Southeast Alaska’s Noyes Pavilion in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely Saturday evening. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

‘I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do now that he’s gone’: Residents celebrate the life of former UAS professor Sol Neely

“He was a mentor, he was a friend, he taught me so much…”

Dozens of people surrounded the bright flame of a fire on a cold Saturday evening at the University of Southeast Alaska’s Noyes Pavilion to participate in a traditional Tlingit fire dish ceremony in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack while backpacking last month. He was 49.

For over a decade, Neely worked as a professor of English at UAS and during that time he became a major proponent for reformation in the Juneau criminal justice system. Most notably, he was the founder of Flying University, a collaboration between UAS and Lemon Creek Correctional Center, a program that offered incarcerated people a chance to pursue higher education. He also collaborated with the Juneau Reentry Coalition and the Juneau Police Department.

Neely’s friends, family and students sat in rows of benches as white cards were passed around. The cards invited attendees to write a message to Neely or a loved one they would like to add as an offering to the fire.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
Two young children face the flames of a fire at a celebration of life ceremony hosted at the University of Southeast Alaska’s Noyes Pavilion in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely Saturday evening.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire Two young children face the flames of a fire at a celebration of life ceremony hosted at the University of Southeast Alaska’s Noyes Pavilion in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely Saturday evening.

“It’s a long journey so we’re going to give him some food, give him some words because we’re not left behind,” said X̱’unei Lance Twitchell, a UAS professor and close friend of Neely. “We’re always surrounded with intention, with love, with strength, with the thoughts that he had, with the words that he had.”

Twitchell explained a fire dish ceremony is a Tlingit tradition that offers people a chance to ask their ancestors for help as they battle the grief and loss of a loved one like Neely, and to feed them as they make their journey into the next life.

Twitchell said though Neely, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was a guest on the Lingít Aaní, his contribution to the Tlingit people and culture along with his advocacy for Indigenous power and decolonization merited an abbreviated version of a ceremony that is typically only performed for Tlingit people. He said one of Neely’s favorite sayings was “Decolonization, I’m not afraid of it.”

“We wanted to continue his connection here and have his family here as we feed and prepare him for his journey,” Twitchell said. “We wanted to have a moment of remembrance and to feed him as he goes on his journey. He was loved, he loved people, and sometimes that’s all you need.”

Though Neely and his family moved in 2020 from Juneau to Washington where he continued to teach English at Heritage University, his memory lingers strong within the community of UAS students and capital city residents who were impacted by his presence in Juneau.

A handful of friends and past students shared stories about Neely and the lessons he shared with them, along with their condolences to Neely’s wife and child who attended the ceremony.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire 
More than 50 people sit on benches surrounding a fire pit that was used to conduct a traditional Tlingit fire dish ceremony in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack while backpacking last month.

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire More than 50 people sit on benches surrounding a fire pit that was used to conduct a traditional Tlingit fire dish ceremony in honor of late UAS professor Sol Neely, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack while backpacking last month.

“He really taught me to discern to think beyond your vices, your prejudices, your assumptions and to see people you view as the other as worthwhile,” said Laura Hales Tripp, a former student. “He had a love for people and it was amazing to watch and was unmistakable — and I’m very grateful to have had him as a professor.”

Éedaa Heather Burge, another student of Neely, spoke to the crowd about her time as Neely’s student and described him as an “incredible example” to her about how to be both a more loving person and a stronger Indigenous leader.

“He was a mentor, he was a friend, he taught me so much about how I think about indigenous philosophy, being an indigenous person, an academic and building a relationship with people and place, across cultures and across boundaries,” she said. “I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do now that he’s gone.”

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

More in News

(Juneau Empire file photo)
Aurora forecast for the week of Feb. 19

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé students hold up signs during a rally along Egan Drive on Tuesday afternoon protesting a proposal to consolidate all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School to help deal with the Juneau School District’s financial crisis. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
JDHS students, teachers rally to keep grades 9-12 at downtown school if consolidation occurs

District’s proposed move to TMHS would result in loss of vocational facilities, ninth-grade students.

Deven Mitchell, executive director of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., gives a tour of the corporation’s investment floor to Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, and other attendees of an open house on Friday. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. leaders approve proposal to borrow up to $4 billion for investments

Plan must be OK’d by legislators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy because it requires changes to state law.

Rep. Cathy Tilton, R-Wasilla, presides over a mostly empty House chamber at the end of an hourslong recess over education legislation on Monday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empure)
Tie vote kills early House debate on education funding

Lawmakers spend much of Monday in closed-door negotiations, plan to take up bill again Tuesday.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announces his proposed FY2025 budget at a news conference in Juneau on Dec. 14, 2023. (Claire Stremple/Alaska Beacon)
Gov. Dunleavy proposes tax breaks for the private sector to address Alaska’s high cost of living

The Dunleavy administration’s proposal to address a crisis of affordability in Alaska… Continue reading

Lacey Sanders, director of the state Office of Management and Budget, presents Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s updated budget requests for this fiscal year and next to the Senate Finance Committee on Monday at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Small changes in governor’s proposed budget could mean big moves for Juneau

New plan moves staff from Permanent Fund building, opening space for city to put all employees there

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Smokestack emissions into Fairbanks’ atmosphere are seen on March 1, 2023, from the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska legislators give closer look at bill aimed at storing carbon emissions underground

Bill could enable enhanced oil recovery, sequestration of emissions from new coal-fired power.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Most Read