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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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School name finalist: Pauline Flett helped save Spokane Tribe’s language

UPDATED: Wed., May 26, 2021

Pauline Flett teaching Spokane language in 1983. The word on the board, Xest, is the word for Good.  (Spokesman-Review archives)
Pauline Flett teaching Spokane language in 1983. The word on the board, Xest, is the word for Good. (Spokesman-Review archives)

Editor’s note: The Spokane school board is expected to pick the names of three new middle schools tonight. This story is part of a series examining the finalists for those names.

By the time they get to middle school, Spokane students might know something about the history of their community. But unless they are Native Americans, it’s probably the white history of the Spokane area that goes back 150 years or so.

Pauline Flett, a member of the Spokane Tribe and the person instrumental in preserving their Salish language dialect, had a version that goes back much farther to the beginning of the original residents and the river that sustained them for thousands of years.

As she told it on an episode of “Prairie Home Companion” in 1998, an earthquake was followed by a great flood and a boy and girl took refuge on Mount Spokane. When the flood passed, they saw a flowing river with beautiful falls and rapids. There were salmon in the river, which gave hope to the people, who became the Upper, Middle and Lower Spokanes, based on where they lived along the river.

Flett, who died last year at age 93, spent decades preserving and teaching the language of the Spokanes, as well as their stories, keeping it from becoming a dead language.

“She was determined not to let it die – determined to get as many people involved in the language as possible,” Laura Brisbois, one of her daughters, said in Flett’s obituary.

Although Flett grew up speaking the tribe’s Salish dialect at home and only learning English when she went to school, by the time she was an adult that was rare. Few parents were teaching the tribe’s language to their children in the 1970s when she began working with a linguist who was developing an alphabet to preserve Salish.

“Many Indians didn’t want their children punished so they learned the white man’s ways,” she told a Spokesman-Review reporter in a 1997 interview. Her own parents had been made to stand in the corner for speaking Salish at school. At Indian boarding schools, students could be hit for not speaking English.

Although she didn’t have formal training in linguistics, Flett was among the first to use the new alphabet to transcribe words and record the tribe’s legends.

“I think she just really loved doing it. She was just a natural linguist,” said Barry Carlson, the linguist who developed the alphabet.

She co-wrote the first Spokane-English dictionary and later updates, taught the language to Natives and non-Natives and received an honorary masters degree from Eastern Washington University in 1992. She helped develop an immersive school for children on the Spokane Reservation at Wellpinit.

“Virtually everything that exists in the Spokane language today, that’s ever been documented, has been a result of her work,” said Barry Moses, who knew Flett since he was a child and now runs the Spokane Language House.

She worked with elders to develop words in Spokane Salish for the modern world, Moses told a reporter last year, including a word for computer that combined the word for “brain” and the word for “pretending,” to make “something pretending to be a brain.”

Without Flett, the Spokane Salish dialect could have gone extinct, Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribe, said Tuesday.

“She was a beautiful lady who worked very hard her whole life to protect our language,” Evans said. “From our perspective (naming a school for Flett) would be a wonderful thing.”

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