Sports

To Honor His Indigenous Ancestors, He Became a Champion

RENO, Nev. — Ku Stevens ran toward the rising sun. His feet dug into the gravel trail, his legs burned with pain, and he fought doubt. He ran on. A pair of straggling spectators crossed his path, and he swerved to avoid them, nearly losing his balance, and he ran on.

The five-kilometer race’s trail climbed into the foothills. He had no teammates and his competitors had fallen far back. There was no one to push him toward the time he needed to be the best. But Stevens ran on.

A senior at Yerington High School in western Nevada, Ku — short for Kutoven — raced in the Nevada state interscholastic championships in early November. Though he lived on a struggling Native American reservation and participated in a sport where few competitors shared his background, he dreamed for years of being the state’s fastest high school distance runner. He wanted to show that Native Americans could be champions.

Winning would honor his tribe and his forebears, especially his great-grandfather and others like him, who endured brutal treatment at federal and church-run boarding schools and the often violent efforts to strip Native Americans of their language, religious beliefs and all other vestiges of their culture.

To Stevens, that had been a crime against nature, deeply wrong and unforgivable.

The vacant auditorium at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nev., in 2015.Credit…Lance Iversen/Associated Press

Stevens’s paternal great-grandfather, Frank Quinn, a Yerington Paiute Indian born in the rugged Nevada desert, suffered a fate all too common for Native American children in the early 1900s. At around 7 or 8 years old, he was forced to leave his parents and attend the Stewart Indian School, three miles outside Carson City and a world away from his tribe.

The boarding school was one of over 350 similar institutions across the United States created to forcibly assimilate Native Americans. “The intent was evil,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “It was genocide.”

In Quinn’s era, children as young as age 4 arrived on campus after being ripped from their parents’ arms by agents of the school. Mothers and fathers traveled from tribal land and camped just outside Stewart’s sprawling campus, hoping to steal glimpses of their children. Corporal punishment and solitary confinement were common. Like at many of the Native American boarding schools, a cemetery sat nearby. Its graves are said to hold the remains of students who died at the school.

Quinn stood up to such treatment. The Paiute have passed his story through generations by word of mouth. How he was just 8 years old when he escaped Stewart and fled into the desert. How he ran, using a keen memory of the topography, and somehow navigated his way home, a trip of 50 miles.

In tribute to his great-grandfather and the many victims of the boarding schools, this summer Stevens ran the same 50 miles, calling it the Remembrance Run. Over two days, Stevens tore through the scorched desert, stopping every five miles for the pack of over 100 other runners to catch up. Along the way, he thought of his great-grandfather. How did Quinn survive? Where did he take shelter?

Ku Stevens, left, and his father, Delmar Stevens, offered tobacco to the four directions and the creator before entering the family’s sweat lodge.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

“I owe him everything,” said Stevens, whose family hews closely to Paiute traditions. A canvas-covered sweat lodge, used for ceremonies to mark the seasons, sits in the family’s backyard. They farm alfalfa on the same land that has been a home to the tribe for centuries. “When I run, I take my history with me and especially Frank Quinn. He went through so much at such a young age. And his first escape from Stewart wasn’t the last.”

There are only scant records of Quinn’s time at Stewart, but this much is known: After that first escape, government agents dragged him back. Once more he fled, only to be caught and returned. He escaped again and made it home again. The school finally gave up.

Quinn would become a rancher, a tribal leader and a respected elder — a quiet man who refused to speak ill of anyone. He died in the mid-1980s, a quarter-mile from the single-story, two-bedroom home where Stevens lives now.

It was near that home where Stevens fell in love with running. The speed and self-reliance of it made him feel free. He remembers that sense surge through him at age 4 in his first race, a half-mile run he sprinted the entire way.

By 8, he ran constantly at the side of his father, Delmar Stevens, a social worker who took to jogging to burn stress. By 12, Ku pounded out miles without his dad, speeding day after day down dirt paths rimming nearby farms.

Ku Stevens, 18, running across a field near his home in Yerington, Nev.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

Yerington High sits in a predominantly white town of roughly 3,000 close to the reservation. By his sophomore season, Stevens was the only member of the cross-country team. He had no one to help him run faster, nobody to work in tandem with during races against schools that sometimes featured a phalanx of 10 runners.

Undaunted, he racked up victory after victory.

Then came the pandemic: no in-person school or sports for over a year.

Stevens sometimes joined the cross-country team from Damonte Ranch High School in Reno, over an hour away, on its training runs, but he mainly trained alone. He woke often before dawn and headed into the countryside, where he padded up rocky mining roads to hillside peaks overlooking the reservation.

His family had never been able to afford sending Stevens far away to compete against top talent at national meets, where college coaches recruit runners. But this summer the tribe’s medical clinic, seeking to promote healthy living on a reservation wracked by diabetes, paid for Stevens to fly across the country and run against some of the nation’s best.

In July, at the U.S.A. Track & Field Junior Olympic Championships in Florida, he took first place in the 3,000-meter race. Then he won gold at a Texas meet. Back home in Nevada, he dominated his high school season.

Next up was the state championship, featuring nearly 200 runners and scores of teams. Stevens knew the history: Native Americans had rarely made a mark at the meet. He vowed to change that and to finally catch the attention of coaches from the most successful college teams.

The night before, Stevens sat in his bedroom, lined with medals and first-place plaques. “Oregon,” he said, calm and sure, “that’s the school for me. I want to run for Oregon.”

The state meet took place on a hilly, windswept course in Reno where Stevens watched runners from the biggest schools race first. He paid particular attention to the winner, Nathan Carlin, a senior from the Las Vegas area who posted a formidable time of 16 minutes, 29 seconds.

Then it was Stevens’s turn. He stood at the starting line, thin and solitary next to the teams from other small schools. Wearing the same purple uniform he had worn since freshman year, he glanced at his parents and friends. His eyes tensed. He nervously fiddled with his black, shoulder-length hair, which was swept into a ponytail.

Stevens did not just want to beat the field in his race. He knew he needed to better Carlin’s time to stand out to recruiters. “I’m not sure I can,” he thought.

He prayed for strength and toed the line. A beat passed. The starter’s gun pierced the air. Stevens surged to the front, over the crowd’s fervent cheers. “That’s Ku, the Indian kid from the reservation,” he heard one spectator say. “Oh man, he’s fast!”

Stevens struggled for breath and pushed with every step. Faster, faster. He kept on, around a bend, across a straightaway, dirt to gravel to grass. One last lap. Up and down a rocky hillside. Pain arced across his body, but he sprinted forward, grimacing, head tilted back.

Finally, he crossed the finish line. Crumpling to the grass, he heard the public address announcer call out his time: 16 minutes, 28 seconds. One second faster than Carlin.

Ku Stevens was a state champion, and the fastest high school cross-country runner in all of Nevada. Standing before the crowd to receive his gold medal, he draped himself in the flag of the Yerington Paiute tribe.

Stevens and his girlfriend, Vanessa Lopez, walked back to their teams’ tents after the state championships.Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

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