Treasured Preservationist

Pauline Flett, Salish language preservationist and scholar, helped lay the groundwork for Native language education programs across Washington state

By Eastern Magazine

In June 1998, Pauline Flett appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show. With the host translating at her side, Flett told the traditional story of the coming of the salmon in her native dialect of Salish, a language she was working tirelessly to preserve from extinction. It was an inspiring, moving performance, one of many such inspirational moments in the life and work of Flett, a treasured teacher and elder of the Spokane Tribe, who died on April 13, 2020 in Spokane. She was 93.

Pauline Flett

“She was a trailblazing linguist who taught at EWU for years and compiled the Spokane Dictionary,” says Margo Hill, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at EWU. “She inspired myself and many others.”

Growing up in a Salish-speaking household in the West End area of the Spokane Indian Reservation, as a youth Flett became completely fluent in language. As the years passed and others’ knowledge of Salish waned, Flett became determined to ensure the language would remain accessible to new generations of speakers. She co-wrote the first Spokane-English dictionary, and for years taught the language at EWU, where her meritorious service earned her an honorary master’s degree in 1992.

“Pauline Flett was a beloved member of the EWU community and our whole region,” said EWU President Mary Cullinan in April. “Her work to preserve the Salish language was incredibly significant.”

In addition to her contributions at the university, Flett also helped lay the groundwork for 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.”