Underscore News/Report for America
Gravel crunches underfoot as Ku Stevens glides across the Nevada desert. The muted brown tones of sagebrush-covered hills behind his family’s home turn gold, illuminated by the rising sun. Ku runs the same trail his great-grandfather did as a child, for a different reason. His great-grandfather ran to survive. Ku runs to remember.
Kutoven “Ku” Stevens, an 18-year-old Yerington Paiute tribal citizen, has always been told his legs would take him places. Running is in his DNA. At the age of 8, Ku’s great-grandfather, Frank “Togo” Quinn, used his own legs to escape the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada. The young boy ran 50 miles through the Nevada desert, finding the way back to the Yerington Paiute Reservation by memory alone.
Quinn ran that journey on three separate occasions before government agents gave up and let him stay home. Had he not run away when he did, Ku might not be here.
A report released in May by the U.S. Department of the Interior found “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse” at the 408 boarding schools run by the government between 1819 and 1969. The investigation found burial sites at 53 schools so far — a number that is expected to rise.
Today, Ku uses his own legs to continue his great-grandfather's legacy, running to bring awareness and healing to those impacted by Indian boarding schools.
“He ran for his life, but I run to preserve and to remember him,” Ku said. “His need to get back to his family allowed me to share his story and other stories like his on a national level.”
In August, Ku held the second annual Remembrance Run, to honor the children who survived Indian boarding schools and to remember those who never made it home.
The original run, in 2021, came in the wake of the discovery of mass unmarked gravesites at Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. Ku and his parents dedicated the run to his great-grandfather and those like him.
The run garnered national media attention from the likes of The New York Times, making the cover of the The New York Times Upfront Scholastic Magazine, and inspired the feature-length documentary Remaining Native. (Editor's note: This story's author, Jarrette Werk, is an associate producer for Remaining Native.)
Ku’s last couple of years have been busy.
He became the fastest cross-country runner in Nevada the same year his high school almost canceled the running season because he was the only person on the cross-country team.
After that, he became a two-time Gatorade player of the year, winning spots for both track and cross country. He graduated with honors and secured a walk-on spot to the cross-country and track team at the University of Oregon, which he has dreamed of attending since he was 10 years old, when he overheard two men talking about the school. They said it had one of the best running programs in the country. The idea crystalized.
Ku’s father, Delmar Stevens, says Kutoven is a Paiute word that translates to “bring light from the darkness.”
“When you look at that name, and the responsibility that comes with it, it's big,” Delmar Stevens said. “But I see Ku is up for that. He has been doing that already.”
Raising a champion
Ku grew up on the Yerington Colony, at the edge of the rural farming town of Yerington, Nevada. His father, Delmar Stevens, and mother, Misty Stevens, met while working for the Yerington Paiute Tribe.
His mother says she was surprised to find out she was pregnant with Ku, because she thought she was done having children. She believes having Ku later in life allowed the family to meet the needs of a budding champion.
“I think if we had Ku when we were younger, we wouldn't have been ready to guide his little soul to do the things that it needs to do,” she said.
Ku’s father recalls running with his son in his stroller. The toddler would climb out and run alongside him. Seeing the boy’s enthusiasm for running, the couple decided to enter their son into his first half-mile fun run at the age of 4. Stevens says Ku sprinted the whole way. That was the day they watched their son win his first medal.
“He's a competitor,” Delmar Stevens said. “Ku doesn't like to be that guy that comes in second.”
When he was just 8 years old, Ku won his first 5k. He beat everyone who entered, including the adults.
Living in a small town, Ku didn’t have access to the running coaches available at larger schools. Instead, the cooking teacher coached cross country. English and P.E. teachers coached track.
“None of them specifically focused on running,” Ku said. “It was always kind of just me taking whatever workouts they gave me and just multiplying it, or just trying a lot harder than what they told me to do.”
Even so, he kept winning local races and adding to his medal collection. He began to think about where his legs could take him.
In eighth grade, Ku found the coach he had been looking for. Workout plans created by college runner and volunteer coach Phillip Cruz helped Ku improve dramatically. He broke the five-minute mile in eighth grade.
Things were looking up, until the pandemic hit. Meets were canceled and his sophomore running seasons were gone. To top it off, Cruz decided to enlist into the military.
Ku was on his own once again.
During his junior year, Ku’s school again suggested canceling the cross country season. In order to have a team, the school needed at least five teammates, plus a coach. And Ku was the only cross country runner in his entire school.
“It was challenging, because initially, the school didn't want to have just a one-man team,” Ku’s father said. “They had no funding for it. There was no coach.”
His parents were not willing to let their son’s season dissolve. They offered to pay for whatever the school couldn’t afford. That meant transporting him to meets, paying entrance fees and coaching him themselves.
Delmar became Ku’s coach.
“His name was on the paper as my coach, but my dad doesn't know a whole lot about running,” Ku said. “So it was just me trying to remember what workouts worked and trying to piece things together.”
All they needed was someone from the school to show up and sign him in for races. The school’s teachers agreed to help.
That year, Ku was the undefeated regional champion and earned the title of the fastest runner in Nevada.
New coach, new possibilities
Ku had the school's support and a regional title. But he was still missing something — a coach. Ku asked his parents to drive him to attend the 5A championships at Reed High School in Reno. He wanted to compare his times with the second largest division in the state.
He ran the course, zooming past Damonte Ranch High School’s head cross country coach, Lupe Cabada.
Cabada says he was surprised by this mysterious runner.
“He told me his time, and it was pretty close to the winning time in the 5A,” Cabada said. “And then I got his backstory and found out that he's a lone ranger, and the only person on this team. I was like, ‘Wow, you're doing all of this by yourself?’”
Impressed with Ku’s raw talent, Cabada began inviting him to runs and training sessions. To his surprise, Ku showed up filled with questions and ready to put in hard work every time.
That meant improvements in Ku’s times and endurance. His parents hired Cabada as his full-time coach. That meant Ku and his family would drive 140 miles several times per week to practice with Cabada and his team at Damonte.
Competing at national races required flying across the country, which Ku’s family could not afford. But he felt he needed to do it. Those races put runners in front of college recruiters from top programs like UO. So Ku’s tribe, the Yerington Paiute, offered to cover the travel costs.
In the summer of 2021, Ku won two gold medals at the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics competition in Jacksonville, Florida. He ran 8:44.96 in the 3,000 meters in the boys 17-18 age group and was part of the Lake Tahoe Track Club’s 4×800 boys relay team that finished in 7:56.76.
In spring of 2022, at the Arcadia meet in California, Ku finished fourth overall with a time of 8:54.83, which set a new Nevada state record for the 3,200.
“I had never coached anybody to his level,” Cabada said. “For him to run one of the fastest times in Nevada history was huge, especially for somebody coming from such a small division.”
Ku was breaking records and racking up medals. He was determined to make the radar of coaches from Oregon and become one of the greats, like his idols Steve “Pre” Prefontaine and William Mervin “Billy” Mills.
Ku told his mother that he wanted to be an Olympian when he was in eighth grade. It was a big dream for a young boy, especially a Native kid from the reservation. But there was one Native American athlete from the Pine Ridge Reservation who had already done so: Billy Mills.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Billy Mills, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, completed one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history by winning the 10,000-meter race. To this day, Mills is the only American to win gold in this event.
Orphaned at 12, Mills took up running while attending Haskell Indian Nations University. After winning the 1956 KSHSAA Class B State Championship in cross country, he attended the University of Kansas on an athletic scholarship. He earned numerous titles in college, including becoming a three-time NCAA All-America cross-country runner. After college, Mills enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, serving as first lieutenant before qualifying for the 1964 Olympic Games in the 10,000 meters and marathon.
Due to health issues, Mills made the heartbreaking decision to hang up his cleats and leave the track. He then found his true calling: helping Indigneous peoples achieve their dreams. He made it a priority to give back to his community and create a better future for Indigneous youth, especially those in his home community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
In 1986, Mills and Eugene Krizek founded Running Strong for American Indian Youth, which focuses on building the next generation of Native American leaders and strengthening Native communities by meeting critical needs, preserving culture and supporting the dreams of Native community members.
Mills first heard of Ku when he and his wife, Patricia, read about his Remembrance Run in a news article. He told his wife he wanted to get in touch with Ku and his parents.
Mills said Ku’s story struck him as powerful.
“Whether it's 5,000, or 10,000, he will run faster than I ran,” Mills said.
Mills knew his foundation could help Ku continue to spread awareness of the issue of Indian boarding schools.
Each year, Running Strong awards $10,000 to 10 Native youths and the nonprofit organization of their choice. Each young person uses the money for a project based on their dreams for their community.
Ku won a spot. He used the money to host the second annual Remembrance Run with his mentor and coach Cabada. This time, joined by about 40 others, they ran his great-grandfather's 50-mile escape route in reverse. Along the way, they brought offerings and prayers to the gravesites at Stewart Indian School.
Ku cherishes his relationship with Mills.
“That's a lot of Native Americans’ idol, and to be as close as I am with him, it's really special,” Ku said.
Mills says he sees parts of himself in Ku. They both share that drive to work hard and to be the best. They prove that Native American runners belong in places like the Olympics and the University of Oregon.
“They say the youth have dreams, and the elders have visions,” Mills said. “I saw a young man that had the dreams of the youth, but also with the two of his parents, how they were nurturing him to have the visions of an elder.”
Running to his dream school
As Ku’s senior year of high school was nearing its end, other students announced where they would attend college in the fall. Ku waited patiently for an offer from his dream school.
He had a 3.93 GPA and two national gold medals, held local and state records, and enjoyed the support of Billy Mills and Indian Country in general.
He received numerous offers to attend other schools, some with full ride scholarships, but if they weren’t Oregon he didn’t even look at them. By the time his senior cross country season ended, his mother said she was getting a little worried.
“What if U of O doesn't make an offer,” she said to her son. “Where else would you want to go? And he's like, ‘No, I'm going to U of O.’”
In March, they received an invitation to take a tour of the University of Oregon campus. They made the nearly nine-hour drive to Eugene from the Yerington Colony.
By the end of the tour, his mother felt as though it was just a regular tour and not the one they hoped for. Then Ben Thomas, the school’s associate head coach, invited them up to his office. Inside was a table covered with championship rings.
Thomas told them he thought Ku was a good fit for the team.
It was a huge relief. But the next question was money. Coach Thomas was only able to offer a walk-on position. It didn’t come with a scholarship. Oregon only offers athletic scholarships to its top three running recruits; Ku was number six.
But Ku said it was still a position on the team. That was good enough for him because he's confident he will earn that scholarship.
The family didn’t know how they would pay for their son to attend college. His academic scholarships wouldn’t cover everything and he wasn't eligible for grants. One year at Oregon for an out-of-state student is about $62,000. They were nearly $25,000 short, but they were determined to make it work.
“Maybe we're stubborn, but we weren't going to let a little thing like money stand in the way of his dream,” his mother said.
That’s when the family’s community stepped up. College advisor Stephanie Lerude, who watched Ku grow up in the Reno running community, offered to create a GoFundMe page to help with costs.
“I have a ‘track’ record of spotting those who will succeed in college and believe that a lack of access to resources should not preclude a hard working student from achieving a college degree," she wrote on the page.
With her help and the support of nearly a hundred people, they were able to raise over $22,000. Ku will attend his first year completely debt-free.
Finally a Duck
On Sunday, Aug. 28, Ku’s parents once again drove him to Eugene. This time, he was moving in.
The family’s Toyota Tundra, with “NDNRUNNER” license plates, pulled up to the dorms next to Hayward Field. Accompanied by the Remaining Native film crew, Ku and his parents carried his belongings up to his uncomfortably warm third-floor dorm room.
They looked out his window at the track Ku has dreamed of for nearly half his life. Below, runners passed in opposite directions. “Track Town'' signs and UO logo stickers were plastered on windows and the sides of brick buildings.
There was an extended moment of reflection. Then Ku bounded away with his teammates. He was on his way.
Lead photo: Ku Stevens makes a prayer offering and places orange flowers on a grave after running 50 miles through the Nevada desert to the Stewart Indian School Cemetery in Carson City, Nevada. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News