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Yerington teen and family organized run to remember survivors, victims of Indian boarding schools

A mother is styling her son’s shoulder-length hair while they both smile and stand together. They are in a bedroom, and there are plaques and piles of medals on the back wall for running. There is also an open closet behind them with even more trophies.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Kutoven Stevens (right) has been running for years, and he’s standing in front of many of his medals. Next to him is his mom, Misty Stevens, who, along with others, played a big part in organizing the run.

Kutoven “Ku” Stevens and his family organized a 50-mile run honoring the survivors and victims of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City over the weekend. He recently spoke to KUNR’s Gustavo Sagrero about the ultramarathon at his family’s home on the Yerington Paiute Reservation.

Editor’s note: As a warning for those impacted by the trauma of Native American boarding schools, this story discusses some of what happened there.

Gustavo Sagrero: Ku Stevens’ great-grandfather, Frank “Togo” Quinn, ran away from the Stewart Indian School three times at 8 years old, and the school was later shut down in the ‘80s.

Stevens started this ultramarathon with his folks last year after the discovery of mass graves of children at a similar school in Canada. They wanted to honor people like Quinn and those who couldn’t get away. Stevens started running when he was 4 years old with his dad, and next month, he’ll join the track team for the University of Oregon. This weekend’s run meant a lot for him.

Kutoven Stevens: Because I’m Native, I’m a descendant of my great-grandpa. It means a lot for my dad just to see what it was like, to understand what it was like to be that scared and to be that alone, to not have the typical resources that somebody would have on a trip like that.

I’m able to represent my people, and one of the best ways I know how, which is through running. So to be able to combine two things that I’m very passionate about, which is running and activism for my people, I’m able to really make a difference and an impact in a way that I could see, in a way that other people can understand, and in a way that I feel like is reaching a lot of people’s hearts, which is ultimately what the goal is.

Sagrero: How do you carry this story, the story of all these survivors and people who didn’t survive the boarding schools, as you move forward in your life?

Stevens: So when I finished the first run last year, it was great. The last two miles going down the hill, I finally made like the last turn, and I was able to see the valley. I was able to just really understand how emotionally impacted I was by the run because as soon as I saw it and I saw my house, I was like, “Oh man!” and just goosebumps all over, and I was so happy.

You could just imagine what, you know, an 8-year-old Frank would have been like; he just would have been exhausted. So for him to make that journey and to finally get home, it would have just been amazing. You know, it would have been one of the greatest feelings ever.

And so, for me to kind of share that emotion through this run, I’m able to honor all of them by really putting myself in their shoes and trying my best to understand. So I’ll just continue to share it because I feel like every time I share it, I spark an interest in somebody’s life to learn a little bit more about Native American history.

We don't know what route he took to get back — it was 100 years ago — and we wanted to make this event as accessible to the community and the people that wanted to participate.

Sagrero: The trauma of Indian boarding schools is just starting to get the national attention it deserves. What do you wish people understood more about this history?

Stevens: You were almost like ... you were sent there to die. You know, the Native American in you was supposed to be killed or yourself; if you couldn’t conform to modern society, then you would die. These schools were built with graveyards in mind. They were built with the thought of having a cemetery on campus because they knew that kids would die. That’s not a school; that’s like a camp.

Sagrero: When you say camp, what do you mean?

Stevens: Like Nazi Germany, man. The roads and the building blocks that it took to make America what it is today are filled with the blood and bones of my people. And people need to understand that.

Sagrero: As you move forward in life, what are you thinking about?

Stevens: We always use the term “resilient” for Native Americans, but we shouldn’t have to be resilient. We should just be able to live, and so, that’s what I plan to do. I plan to live. I want to go work for Nike out of college, and I want to make Nike products with Native American designs that are specifically engineered towards different tribes, and then I want to give those products away to those tribes. And then from that, just continue my political standpoints and my activism, but use Nike as a platform for that.

Sagrero: You mentioned the significance of activism in your life and how you want to move forward and continue to be an activist. Part of that is building community. So what is building community like for you?

Stevens: Communities are already here. It’s just a matter of bringing them together. You know, I feel like there’s such a big divide between some of the tribes out here. We should be working on that. We should be working on bringing each other back together.

I won’t be in this town forever. I don’t plan to live here when I’m older, so I will have to find a new community, but it’s just a matter of bringing the Natives that are already there closer together.

Gustavo Sagrero is a former bilingual reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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