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News >  K-12 education

Saving language and breaking ground for Pauline Flett Middle School

UPDATED: Fri., June 4, 2021

Paul Flett, grandson of Pauline Flett, drums with his family, including his mother, Shelia Flett, left in green, during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for the future Pauline Flett Middle School. Pauline’s great-grandson John, 5, places a hand on Paul’s arm while people gathered at the school’s future site near Wellesley Avenue and Royal Court.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Flett, grandson of Pauline Flett, drums with his family, including his mother, Shelia Flett, left in green, during a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday for the future Pauline Flett Middle School. Pauline’s great-grandson John, 5, places a hand on Paul’s arm while people gathered at the school’s future site near Wellesley Avenue and Royal Court. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

As the crowd gathered on a hot, dusty Thursday afternoon, Laura Brisboe recalled her childhood and her mother’s desk piled high with papers.

Yet the stakes were even higher, because Pauline Flett was fighting to save her native Salish language.

“It hurt her so much to think that we could lose that,” Brisboe said. “She sat there 12 to 15 hours a day, just writing down the words.”

More words flowed Thursday afternoon as Spokane – the school district, the city and especially the tribe – broke ground at the future site of Pauline Flett Middle School.

Flett would have been proud, because the words were powerful.

Spokane Public Schools board member Nikki Lockwood read “The People’s Acknowledgment” – now a part of every meeting but especially poignant on Thursday.

It reads, in part, “that some people have lived on this land since time immemorial” and “that we are on the ancestral land of the Spokane Tribe of Indians.”

Her colleague Jenny Slagle, a member of the Yakama Tribe, praised Flett for “nearly singlehandedly saving the dialect of the Spokane language.”

“I want to say that this very special to me,” Slagle said. “Because representations matters, because when Black, Indigenous and students of color walk through these doors, I want them to know that they are welcome and needed in all spaces.”

In the case of Pauline Flett Middle School, those spaces will be filled in fall 2022. Part of the building, approved as part of a capital bond in 2018, was already rising out of the dirt south of Albi Stadium.

Other dignitaries, including Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane Pubic Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard, Principal Matthew Henshaw and City Council President Breann Beggs, thanked the taxpayers and everyone else who made it possible.

School board President Jerrall Haynes said projects such as Pauline Flett Middle School “offer opportunities to shape the landscape of Spokane for a long time.”

“I’m so proud to be a part of the Spokane community today, preserving Pauline Flett’s culture so that we all can learn from her,” he said.

Flett, who died last year, raised 11 children and left behind a family that includes about 90 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Many were in the audience Thursday and some performed on the drums before the formal groundbreaking ceremony.

As he watched, Flett’s son-in-law, Paul Brisboe, looked ahead to a new era for the Spokane Tribe, leaving behind the time of “erasure” of its culture and bringing on “decolonization.”

“This language is going to live on because of her,” he said.

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