The Spokane Tribe of Indians and the Eastern Washington University community are mourning the loss of Pauline Flett, a treasured tribal elder and dedicated teacher of Salish, the once endangered language of the Spokane people. Flett died on April 13, 2020 in Spokane. She was 93.
“She was a trailblazing linguist who taught at EWU for years and compiled the Spokane Tribal Dictionary,” says Margo Hill, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at EWU. “She inspired myself and many others.”
According to a tribute published in The Spokesman-Review on April 20, Flett was one of only a few remaining tribal elders who were completely fluent in the Spokane Salish dialect, which Flett worked tirelessly to document over the course of five decades. Flett grew up in a Salish-speaking household in the West End area of the Spokane Indian Reservation, according to the Spokesman, and didn’t learn English until she began attending school.
Flett co-write the first Spokane-English dictionary and taught the language at Eastern Washington University. Her work was so significant, EWU granted her an honorary master’s degree in 1992.
“Pauline Flett was a beloved member of the EWU community and our whole region,” says Eastern Washington University President Mary Cullinan. “Her work to preserve the Salish language was incredibly significant.”
Flett’s tireless work also helped lead to the development of Native language education programs across Washington state. LaRae Wiley, executive director of the Salish School of Spokane, remembers Flett as her first Salish teacher.
“I did an independent study with Pauline through EWU,” Wiley says. “I had never heard a word of Salish in my life and I know I sounded horrible. But she always encouraged me and even translated a few of my original songs into Salish.”
Flett’s notes are held in collections at Eastern and the Smithsonian Institution.
Private family graveside services for Flett were held at Pascal Cemetery on the Spokane Indian Reservation. A celebration of her life will be planned for a later date, once the current coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
“I hope in the future we can gather together in person to honor Pauline and her extraordinary legacy,” adds Cullinan.