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.

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