The dawn beckoned, and Ku Stevens made a break for it. It hurt to walk on the gravel path, and his legs were on fire, and he was fighting off doubt. His pursuit continued. He nearly lost his footing as he swerved to avoid a pair of straggler onlookers and continued running.
To Honor His Indigenous Ancestors, He Became a Champion
The course for the 4.5 kilometre race wound its way up into the low mountains. He had no teammates and his competitors had fallen far back. No one was there to prod him toward the peak performance period. Even so, Stevens kept on running.
Ku, short for Kutoven, is a senior from Yerington High School in western Nevada who competed in the Nevada state interscholastic championships in early November.
He had always wanted to be the fastest high school distance runner in the state, despite the fact that he lived on an impoverished Native American reservation and competed in a sport where few competitors shared his background. So he set out to prove that Native Americans could win championships.
Winning would be a fitting tribute to his family and the people who came before him, especially his great-grandfather and others like him who suffered at the hands of the federal government and the church-run boarding schools, as well as the sometimes violent efforts to eradicate Native American language, religion, and culture.
That, in Stevens’s Eyes, was a Terrible Mistake that Could Never be Forgiven.
Frank Quinn, Stevens’ paternal great-grandfather, was a Yerington Paiute Indian who was born in the harsh Nevada desert and who experienced a fate that was all too frequent for Native American youngsters in the early 1900s.
He was sent away from his family at the age of seven or eight to the Stewart Indian School, located three miles outside Carson City and a world away from his tribe.
There were more than 350 boarding schools and other comparable institutions established in the United States with the goal of assimilating Native Americans. Stacey Montooth, director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said, “The aim was terrible.” Genocide, indeed.
Kids as young as four years old were forcibly removed from their parents’ arms and brought to the school by agents during Quinn’s time. Parents came from all over to camp outside Stewart’s massive campus in the hopes of catching a sight of their kids.
There was widespread use of physical abuse and solitary imprisonment. Similarly to other Native American boarding schools, this one also had a cemetery on the grounds. Some of the graves there may include the bones of students who died while attending the institution.
In the Words of Frank Quinn, “When I Run, I Carry My History with Me.”
Quinn was unfazed by the abuse she faced. His legend has been passed down via the Paiute people for many years. How, at age 8, he managed to get away from Stewart and run off into the desert. How, after running for 50 kilometres, he found his way home by relying on his excellent spatial recall.
This summer, Stevens ran the same 50 kilometres in remembrance of his great-grandfather and the many victims of the boarding schools. Over the course of two days, Stevens sped through the scorching desert, pausing every five miles to let the group of over a hundred other runners catch up.
He reflected on his ancestor along the way. So, how exactly did Quinn stay alive? What place did he find to hide?
I owe him everything,” Stevens, whose family is highly traditional in the Paiute faith, added. The family has a sweat lodge in their garden where they celebrate the changing of the seasons through rituals.
The tribe has been cultivating alfalfa there for hundreds of years. “When I’m on the run, I take my past with me—especially Frank Quinn. All that he had to endure at such a tender age was shocking. And that wasn’t the last time he evaded Stewart.”
Very little information is available about Quinn’s time at Stewart, but we do know that after his initial escape, government officials brought him back. Again, he tried to run away, only to be captured and brought back. He had successfully escaped and returned home. The university stopped trying.
To his credit, Quinn never said a bad word about anyone and went on to have successful careers as a rancher, tribe leader, and revered elder. He passed away in the middle of the 1980s, less than a quarter mile from Stevens’ current two-story, one-story home.
Stevens Discovered His Passion for Jogging in the Neighbourhood.
The quickness and self-reliance of it made him feel liberated. When he was four years old, he ran his first race, a half mile at a full sprint.
At the age of eight, he was often jogging alongside his father, Delmar Stevens, a social worker who took up the sport as a way to relieve tension. By the time he was 12, Ku was putting in serious mileage without his dad by racing along the dirt roads that surrounded the farms in the area.
Near the Native American reserve is the largely white town of Yerington, where the high school is located. When Stevens was a sophomore, he was the only runner for the cross country squad. When competing against schools that fielded teams of ten runners, he was on his own and had no one to work in tandem with to gain an advantage.
He Never Gave Up And Instead Won a Series of Matches.
Then the epidemic hit, and there was a full year with no in-person classes or games.
Stevens occasionally ran with the Damonte Ranch High School cross country team in Reno, almost an hour distant, but he primarily trained alone. A frequent early riser, he frequently left the reservation to explore the surrounding countryside, often padding up rough mine roads to scenic lookout points.
Stevens had never been able to attend national meets, where college coaches look for elite runners, because his family could not afford to send him far away. This summer, however, the tribe’s medical clinic funded for Stevens to fly across the country and compete against some of the nation’s best in an effort to promote healthy living on a reservation afflicted by diabetes.
He won the 3,000-meter race at the U.S. Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in Florida in July. A gold medal at a Texas competition followed. When he returned to Nevada, he starred for his high school team.
The following day was the state championship, which featured hundreds of athletes from dozens of teams. It was no secret to Stevens that Native Americans had a poor track record in this competition. He was determined to change that and get the attention of the best college coaches.
Stevens spent the night before in his room, which was decorated with trophies and awards. “A sense of serenity and certainty swept over him as he confidently declared, “Oregon is the place for me to go to college. For the state of Oregon, please.”
On the mountainous, windy course in Reno where the state competition was held, Stevens saw the top runners from the largest schools compete first. He was especially impressed with the winner, a senior from the Las Vegas region named Nathan Carlin, who ran the course in an impressive time of 16 minutes, 29 seconds.
Finally, Stevens had his Chance to Speak.
Thin and alone, he stood at the starting line alongside teams from other minor schools. He looked around at his family and friends in the purple uniform he’d been wearing since freshman year. His gaze hardened. The man carefully adjusted the ponytail holding his black, shoulder-length hair.
Stevens’ primary goal was not only to win the race. In order to stand out to recruiters, he realised he had to beat Carlin’s time. There’s a part of me that isn’t convinced I can,” he reflected.
He asked God to give him courage, and then he followed orders. Silence followed. The sharp crack of the starter’s gun echoed through the arena. Over the roar of the applauding throng, Stevens made his way to the forefront. That’s Ku, the Indian youngster from the reserve, he overheard a spectator say. “Whoa, that guy can move!”
Stevens Pushed Himself Despite his Laboured Breathing.
Quicker, quicker. As he continued, the ground changed from dirt to gravel, and finally to grass. Final lap. There was a lot of climbing up and down a rough slope. While a wave of pain swept across his body, he continued to run with his head cocked back and a grimace on his face.
He completed the race and finished it. He collapsed onto the grass and heard his time of 16 minutes and 28 seconds announced over the public address system. Faster than Carlin by a single second.
Ku Stevens won the state title and was the fastest high school cross country runner in Nevada. He covered himself in the flag of his Yerington Paiute ancestors and stood before the throng to get his gold medal.