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A hard knock life

Her earliest memory is walking hand in hand with the matron of the reservation boarding school near Devil’s Lake, N.D. Her mother and father had both died and, when she was three, she was placed at the Fort Totten reservation boarding school. She remained there until her grandparents came to get her and she lived with them for the next few years.  “Those years were the happiest of my life,” she said. But following her grandparents’ death, at age nine, she returned to the Fort Totten boarding school for the second time. The year was 1927. The girl was Alyce Monete (now Alyce Hill) of St. Cloud, and she will be 93 years old in August. “My people migrated from Canada to Belcourt, N.D.,” Alyce explained. “We were mixed bloods-Scottish, French Canadian and full-blooded Cree.” The United States government operated the Reservation Boarding School system throughout the nation from 1870-1928. They mandated that Native American children attend these schools with the intention of assimilating them into white culture. Some schools were on the reservation but others were far away and many parents strongly objected to this policy because the children were taken away from their families and their traditional culture. “In those days, Indian agents could come into your home and take your children and put them into the reservation boarding schools,” Alyce explained. “The agents had to make a quota or the government could shut the school down. I went to Fort Totten to make a quota.” Most of the students there were from the Sioux community. By the 1920’s, support for the reservation boarding schools began to erode, and with changes in federal policy in the 1930’s, many schools closed and Native American students began attending public schools. The Fort Totten school continued to operate until 1959 when it became part of a historic site known as Fort Totten State Historic Park. After returning to the school at Fort Totten at age nine, Alyce stayed there until she completed 8th grade. The students lived in dormitories which had large rooms with rows of beds. Everyone was responsible for keeping their bed and area clean. Each day there would be an early wake-up call. “We had military life,” said Alyce. “We had to line up and march everywhere to piano music. We marched from dorm to the kitchen, from kitchen to school. And we had chores. Girls worked in the laundry, kitchen, bathroom and dorms.  Boys learned to farm, garden, do carpentry, and milk cows. You didn’t do anything halfway, or you would have to do it again.”  Alyce remembers a time when she asked the Dean of Women, “Why do you keep me in the bathrooms here?” The Dean answered, “You keep them clean.”  Alyce did have other chores, too.  “The laundry was so hard. I don’t know how many white shirts I ironed. They were so stiff they could stand up by themselves. And if you tore a shirt, you’d have to mend it,” she said emphatically. Boys wore the white shirts. The girls wore khaki dresses with black stockings and black high-top shoes and big bloomers. Alyce said she was so small and skinny that she got special foods. “I got to sit at a special table and I got a good diet. Some thought I was privileged.” Officials feared and were watchful for the possible breakout of the deadly disease tuberculosis. There were strict rules at the school. “Someone was always walking around watching and if you goofed off, you would get punished. If you talked to the boys, you would get punished.” Speaking English was required and if someone was caught speaking their native language they would be punished. The students spent half of each day doing chores and the other half going to classes where they learned to read, write, spell, and do arithmetic. There were classes in U.S. history, geography, and music. Alyce loved music and she had a natural talent for singing. The students had to stay at the school for the whole school year but occasionally parents could request that their child come home for a weekend. Alyce never left the school, not even in the summer months when nearly everyone went home to their families. Alyce said that no one wanted her. She did have two sisters who also went to the boarding school but Alyce said sadly, “I never knew them! I didn’t have anyone to run around with, no one to have a relationship with. Because there was no one to love me, I never learned to love.” After leaving Fort Totten around 1931, Alyce briefly lived with an aunt and uncle, but they spoke Cree and she didn’t know the language. Life was hard there so Alyce contacted the tribal office and told them she wanted to get her high school education. She soon left for another boarding school at Lawrence, Kansas to finish her education. It was there that she discovered that she could sing and she joined the choir. “I wasn’t a good student,” Alyce said. “In Indian school you just went along. Nobody cared about grades. But the best thing I learned was to take care of myself.  We learned to cook foods, set the table, sew bloomers.” What did Alyce do for fun? “Fun? Not much,” she stated with barely a thought. Life at the boarding school could be bleak. “A lot of the kids were angry on the inside,” Alyce said. “Some hated white people. Some had a bad life. Some were beaten. They were taken from their homes. But I was no cry baby. To me it was a normal life. I look back and I don’t feel bad about how they treated me. I don’t remember being lonely.” After completing her education at age 18, Alyce returned to Belcourt, North Dakota where she met her future husband, Ralph Grinnell, a superintendent at the reservation. She remembers being shy and not knowing how to act with a boyfriend. Ralph was older than Alyce by 13 years but she admits she felt like she was “double 18” in years. Alyce and Ralph were married and they had nine children. Besides raising her children and caring for her home, Alyce began singing at church and for weddings and funerals. She sang at a governor’s inauguration in North Dakota and once was asked to audition for the Lawrence Welk show. After Ralph’s death, Alyce returned to school to get her college degree. She worked for Indian Health Services as a dental hygienist for many years. Alyce later met Solon Hill, a welding teacher at a school in Sisseton, South Dakota and they were married. They had a home near Fergus Falls on Ottertail Lake when Solon died in 2004. Today, Alyce is living in an apartment in St. Cloud with her dog, Chi Chi. She continues to love music and spends time reading. It is more difficult for her to get around these days. Her children don’t live nearby but she talks to them often and there are occasional visits. She takes pride in the fact that her children are well-educated and they are doing well. The boarding schools are long gone as well as many of the children who attended them. But that era remains an important part of our nation’s history.

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