By Asher Ali
(Spokane, WASH) - Pauline Flett was seven years old when she first encountered the English language in a classroom. Growing up speaking the Indigenous dialect of the Spokane tribe, part of the Salish language family which is spoken by Indigenous people across the Pacific Northwest, Flett embraced the opportunity to learn a new language and asked her teacher for more books.
Her fervor for learning new skills while continuing to embody her own heritage is what made Flett, nearly 90 years later, a prime candidate to represent one of the newest middle schools in Spokane.
In 2018, a law passed which called for the Spokane Public Schools district to open three new middle schools by 2022, with the specific goal of having the schools represent the diverse groups of Spokane’s growing population.
Of the over 1,400 names submitted, Pauline Flett’s was chosen to represent the middle school going up on Wellesley Avenue near Albi Stadium in Northwest Spokane, close to where Flett grew up on the Spokane Tribe Reservation.
After her name was selected by an SPS committee on May 26, the school board broke ground on the developing school on June 3 with Flett’s family and community members present.
“Pauline Flett Middle School is going to be the first school in Spokane named after a local Native American in the twentieth century,” said Jenny Slagle, SPS board director. “We have Gary Middle School which I think this new school really compliments as Chief Gary was a prominent figure in the nineteenth century and now we have Pauline Flett who represents the twentieth-century Native American.”
To those who knew Flett, it was appropriate for a middle school to honor her legacy as someone who strove her entire life to uphold the legacy of her own people through education. Flett died last year at the age of 93, and she spent every day up until then working to preserve the Salishan language.
Born in 1926, Flett was one of few kids her age who was fluent in Salish because of her upbringing, as the language was passed down only through storytelling. The Spokane Tribe faced a number of hardships that threatened their way of life throughout the mid-twentieth century, and Flett took it upon herself to learn the 47-character alphabet that linguist and anthropologist Barry Carlson created for the language in 1969.
“Now we only have two or three elders left who grew up in the language as she did,” said Joshua Flett, Pauline’s grandson. “But she’s inspired so many people to pick up the language, pick up the culture, the songs and everything so now that there are people my age, younger and older who are trying to learn the language in order to teach their kids and keep it going.”
Even without a formal education in linguistics, Pauline Flett was able to put together the first Spokane-English dictionary in the 1970s alongside Carlson and fellow linguist John Ross.
She then headed to Eastern Washington University in 1992 in hopes of starting up a Salishan program in the language department.
The university initially turned her away for not having a college degree, but Joshua said she was the only person on campus who could speak the language. EWU then awarded her with an honorary master's and she was able to teach the native language to the college’s students.
Pauline Flett’s work allowed the rest of the Spokane Tribe to record and describe cultural traditions and worldviews in a way that wasn’t previously possible, but she understood that wasn’t enough. She helped introduce Back to the Heart Immersion School in Wellpinit, Washington, to teach kids about their cultural heritage through exposure to the Salishan language.
“Being such a brand new language in writing, we had no material to work with so we had to create everything - posters, books, games and assignments,” Joshua Flett said. “She would come in a few times a week and help us translate all of the materials; that’s just been her life that whenever anybody wanted to know how to say something, they’d ask her and she’d always help.”
It’s Flett’s family’s hope that the middle school named in her honor can incorporate those teaching tools into its curriculum, along with having guest speakers from the Spokane Tribe talk to students about the history of the region’s Indigenous people.
There are about 1,600 students enrolled in SPS who identify as Native American, and while Spokane boasts an Indigenous population that covers a wide range of unique tribes, the hope is to immerse the entire student body in the culture that Pauline Flett lived to keep alive.
“[Pauline] said that if you lose your language, then you lose your culture and then you lose your identity, so she dedicated her life to preserving that,” said Carole Evans, chair for the Spokane Tribal Business Council. “I just hope that eventually, those schools that serve in our historical homeland provide language instruction because we have so many Native Americans, and just learning part of their language would be a wonderful tribute to her.”