“I remember…” – Alliene Rice DeSanto, in her own words… As told to Susan DeSanto Kemper.
I was born on November 24, 1921, in a house on the Kahnawake Indian Reservation just outside of Quebec, Canada. My mother, Anna Bell Rice, and my father, Israel Rice, were Mohawk Iroquois. I had two older brothers. Henry was my oldest brother, Tom was next. Another baby was lost before I was born.
The house I was born in is the house that Aunt Alice lives in now. It was my Godmother’s house, Josephine Jacobs Taylor. She was my mother’s aunt, sister to my Grandmother, Louise Jacobs Bell. My mother went to her aunt’s house to give birth because her own mother’s house was on the outskirts of town. You don’t want to be too far away when you are giving birth in Canada in the winter.
My parents had been married when they were about 18 years old. They separated several times, and they had separated again when I was born. It wasn’t talked about, so I don’t know the reasons. It may have been because of my father’s job. He was an ironworker and he had to travel. All I know is that they never got back together. They were separated for good by the time I was six months old, although they never divorced.
I remember one day when I was still a child, seeing my father walking down the road past my Grandmother’s house, towards the village. He had a fur coat. He seemed so frightening to me. I ran screaming and crying to my grandmother, who was sitting in her rocking chair. He never spoke to me, never did anything wrong, but he seemed so scary. I never really did get to know him. I was never alone with him – even after I was grown up and married and came back and visited him.
I was named Alliene by Chief War Eagle (my uncle, John Bell.) Other people always changed it. The French heard it as Ann Helene, a name that they were more used to, and that is what I was baptized. In school they called me Eileen. I’m used to it.
On the reservation the mothers had practically nothing to do with naming their baby. The grandparents or godparents took the child away practically right from birth and brought them to the church and baptized them right away. They got to pick the name. It didn’t seem odd, it was just the way things were done. Doda (doDAH – Aunt in Indian) was my Godmother, Josephine Taylor. Chief War Eagle was my Godfather. He was my mother’s brother, but he was just a kid. He named me Alliene after an ex-girlfriend. Doda picked out my Indian name.
My Indian name is Kanietahawi, which means “brought the snow.” I was born on a snowy day. I think that my mother gave all the kids Indian names, but nobody paid much attention to it. Nobody called them by the names, and at that time, being Indian meant nothing – it as the same as being Italian or anything else. It wasn’t popular.
When my own first child was born, my mother was upset because she felt that she should be the Godmother. Indian tradition has the Grandmother as the Godmother of the first child. She wanted to be Frank’s Godmother, and name him. I think she was going to name him Everett, after a man she was working for that she respected.
I never exactly “bonded” with my mother. As a child I lived with my grandmother most of the time. My brothers and Madeline, my cousin, lived with her too. Madeline had been orphaned at a young age. Sometimes I lived with Doda. I only lived with my mother on again and off again, when she had a boyfriend that supported her well enough.
Even though my parents never actually divorced, they had other relationships after they were separated. I know that my father had a girlfriend, and Aunt Blanche told me that they had a child together. Boy or girl, I don’t know. After my father was murdered, though, we never saw the girlfriend or the child again. It seemed fishy when she disappeared like that.
One thing that I learned as a child is not to find fault with different kinds of people, not to judge people. No one is any different from anyone else. My grandmother owned a camp on the beach of the St. Lawrence River – they called it “the Bush,” but it’s name was “Bell’s Camp.” She rented cabings to many families, all different nationalities. There were families from Holland, England, France, and other places. I remember a Chinese family that married into the Indian. I remember a couple from England, a racially mixed couple – white and black. I was brought up not to discriminate.
My grandmother was a shrewd business woman. She controlled the money and the land and the business ventures; my grandfather did not. Grandmother acquired a great deal of property. She would loan out $20 or $25, and then get back property or whatever in prepayment of the loan. She owned all of the Bush, right on the water, as well as three or four pieces of property in the village. We were the first family with a radio – an Atwater Kent, which only worked on Sunday night. We were also one of the first families to get electric lights in our house.
We even had electric lights in our cellar. The light in the cellar was kept on all of the time, for the CHICKENS! It gets cold in Canada in the winter. We kept our chickens in one room in the cellar. They needed a light. The cellar had four rooms: one for coal, one for wood, a root cellar for storing apples and things, and the chicken room.
During the Depression, our family wasn’t on relief. We were too well off to get anything from the government. We didn’t own the lot, but we were never deprived. Everyone was the same. We all had hand-me-down clothes. My mother brought hand-me-downs from the families that she worked for. For Christmas, I got a new dress. I didn’t really know there was a depression. We were never hungry.
There wasn’t a big variety of food then like there is now. We ate Indian Corn Soup, Boiled Dinner, Chicken and Dumplings, and Indian Goulash. We grinded corn for Indian Corn Bread, and sometimes we had a steak. My Grandmother had a cow and chickens and a pig. In the winter we slaughtered the pig and the cow. Grandmother owned a lot of land, maybe the length of Harvard Avenue, and wide, too. We had a big garden with hay for the cow, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, turnips, string beans, and cantaloupes. My grandfather kept bees for honey. We had an orchard of Mackintosh apples and we had cultivated raspberry and black raspberry bushes. It wasn’t really a farm, though, in the way that I would think of a farm. Grandmother crossed the river every two weeks or so to buy what she couldn’t get in the village.
We had dogs, but they weren’t like house dogs, they were more like watch dogs. I never treated any of them like a pet. If my Grandmother heard her dog hollering in the night she would grab her stick and her lantern. Grandmother had a glass eye so I guess she couldn’t see that well, but she would take off through her hayfield in the dark, looking for whoever was trespassing on her land.
I never felt like the dogs were like pets, but I did have a calf as a pet once when I was small. The calf had a heart-shaped white face. One day, it walked up the stairs into the kitchen. My Grandmother had a fit! We also had a really mean old rooster who guarded the house. If that rooster was in front of the house, no one could pass. The rooster would peck them and chase them away.
My grandfather adored my grandmother. He was like a little pet puppy dog where she was concerned. He was a MicMac Indian from Old Orchard, Maine. They met while traveling across the United States, met and married in San Francisco. I think they were traveling in an Indian Show.
Grandfather was with the show because he was a medicine man. Grandmother traveled with her sister, Doda Aukot, my Aunt Ida. They did Indian beadwork. They would go into towns – towns where there were no sidewalks, and they had to walk in the mud. Sometimes, they would find a nice town and could sleep in a bed. Sometimes they would camp and sleep on the ground.
I have Grandmother and Grandfather’s marriage license. Grandfather was 38 and Grandmother was 23 when they married in San Francisco on March 15, 1894. Grandmother was short, and Grandfather was big; over six foot tall. They bought property in Oklahoma and in Texas. The land was later sold. In fact, after I was married, I had to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t try to get the land back.
Grandmother only spoke her own Indian tongue, and she couldn’t speak English. Grandfather spoke a different Indian language and English, but no Mohawk. Doda Aukot had to translate. Somehow, everyone managed to communicate. They never did learn each other’s language. I can’t say I ever heard my grandmother and grandfather talk to each other even though they lived in the same house. They certainly never argued. I guess love has no language barrier!
Doda Aukot spoke really good English. She never married. She translated for my grandparents and lived with them on and off. I guess most of what I can tell you about my grandparents I learned from what she told me. My grandmother couldn’t tell me much about herself. I spoke very little Mohawk. As I was growing up, Grandmother learned to speak a little more English from the people in the camp on the bush. I talked to her in English, and she answered me in Mohawk.
I remember my Grandfather very well. He always had Smith Brothers cough drops in his vest pocket. The house we lived in was made of stone, with a long kitchen. There were two doors: one into the living room, one into the dining room. I think of him sitting in his rocking chair, right in between those two doors.
This has been a very “enlightening” century. There have been so many innovations. Now, everybody has so much, and they want so much more. Like at Christmas. Kids get too much. When I was young, we got one gift, and our stockings. One year I got a little red table and chairs. One year I got a doll that opened and shut her eyes. I was amazed. I poked my finger into her eyes until I poked her eyes out, to see how it worked. We always had a Christmas tree. We had candlesticks that clipped to the tree. We would light the tree maybe once a night, for maybe two minutes. One year, I fell asleep waiting for Santa. My brother Tom, who was about six years older than me, didn’t have anything better to do, so he painted my face with charcoal!
We had open house on Christmas Day. The table was set all day. Grandma lived up on the hill, and it was a long, hard walk for visitors. Everyone walked. They were cold when they finally arrived, and they had to eat! There was Chicken Stew, and Indian Corn Soup, Bread Pudding, Rice Pudding, Pumpkin Pie, and Baked Apples. There were apples and orange, and red “blood” oranges.
I was the youngest girl. I was kind of the favorite or the pet. I was about six years old when my grandfather died. He had gone blind from diabetes. He fell. The trap door to the cellar was open, and he couldn’t see it. They took him to the hospital and he lingered a while. On his deathbed, someone picked me up and had me kiss him … and then he died. My Grandmother never remarried.
I decided at an early age that I wasn’t going to be like my mother. I was going to be more like my grandmother. I was only getting married once, and I was going to stick with it, so my children would have a father, one father. My mother had many boyfriends. Not too many of them were Indians – maybe not any. I guess that I took after my mother in that. Indians weren’t good enough for us.
I never lived with Mother much. She was working, jobs like housekeeper and cook, and she thought more of going out with her friends than taking care of her kids. I lived with her when she had a steady boyfriend that could support her. Mostly, I lived with my Grandmother, and sometimes I lived with Doda. I lived with the VanDamlen family a lot. They were wonderful people. I called them Uncle Frank and Aunt Emma, even though they weren’t related by blood. My brothers and I were close to their children. Aunt Emma was English, from Liverpool. Uncle Frank was actually a prince. His mother had married a prince from Holland.
When I was about fourteen, I moved to New York with my mother. I think that because my Grandmother was getting old, she couldn’t really take care of me anymore. I went to school in Greenwich Village. We lived on Barrow Street, right off of Bleeker. Almost as soon as I got to New York, though, my mother pushed me off on somebody else. I stayed with a couple named Dorothy and Eddie Maynard. They had a piano and they let me play it. I moved about fifteen times before I got married. I lived in Brooklyn, Inwood Park, Greenwich Village, all over.
I remember that my own mother didn’t even tell me the facts of life. I had to find out about my period from some woman I was staying with. I was a tomboy, what did I know about things like that? I thought I had injured myself some how.
In the summer, I went home. That was the best part of my life, with my grandmother, living in the Bush, at Bell’s Camp on the beach. We wernt swimming, fishing, and we drank. We had bonfires and we would sing, and my friends Edith, Dorothy and me would steal the boy’s bikes and bicycle up and down the path. We were girls, we weren’t allowed to have bikes of our own.
I remember Marian Weber, who had a summer house in the Bush. They were from New York City. I had my first watermelon at her house. She took us all to Montreal, to our first circus and to a fancy restaurant. We drank the fingerbowls. I learned so much from the people who summered at Bell’s Camp.
Liquor wasn’t legally allowed in the bush, and every once in a while someone reported my Grandmother for having liquor. The Mounties would raid the place in the middle of the night. We would run barefoot up the path screaming, “The Royal Mounted Police are coming!” Everyone would hide their bottles in the river. One time, Aunt Emma VanDamlen hid a bottle of liquor in her bust, and we all laughed and laughed.
In 1936 – maybe it was October or November – my grandmother was dying so we moved back. After she died, we went back to New York City, to school there. The next year we went back to Kahnawake fro vacation and I met Frank DeSanto there.