Paiute runners trek desert to honor boarding school victims
From left to right, Remembrance Run runners Jaime Cabada, Jackson Davis, Jackson Elliot, Ku Stevens, and coaches Lupe Cabada and Ryan Ress. (Courtesy photo)
The Stewart Indian School was one of three boarding schools in Nevada designed and operated by the federal government to strip Indigenous children of their culture, heritage and language in a centuries-long effort to eradicate Native people and take possession of tribal lands.
It wasn’t until 1980 that the Stewart Indian School officially closed.
Ku Stevens, a citizen of the Yerington Paiute Tribe in Northern Nevada, grew up hearing the story of how his great grandfather Frank Quinn was forced into the school at 8-years old, 50 miles from everyone and everything he knew.
“The government would go to these reservations and find any kids younger than 18 and take them to the school without their parents consent,” Stevens said.
In honor of his family and all Native Americans who attended Indian boarding schools, Stevens—a two-time U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics gold medalist— and other runners participated in a 50-mile Remembrance Run over two days last weekend, Aug. 13-14, along the same path his great grandfather ran in an attempt to leave the school behind decades ago.
“I like to think of it as sparking an interest in somebody and having them learn about it through my story and having them understand why historical trauma affects us as deeply as it does,” Stevens said.
The school served as Nevada’s only off-reservation facility created to forcibly assimilate Native children. The school was officially opened on December 17, 1890 and enrolled 105 students.
Native American children as young as 4 faced “militarized” tactics used to forcibly assimilate children at the Stewart Indian School in what was effectively an attempt at cultural genocide authorized and encouraged across all three branches of the federal government.
The Stewart Indian School is now a museum and cultural center documenting the school’s history through the voices of past students and their families. In video interviews from the museum, some survivors describe harsh punishments, including beatings, imprisonment and withholding of food. “Disciplinary” staff would often train older students to abuse younger students in an effort to control large groups of students.
“As soon as you’re brought to the school they cut off your hair and from that moment on you’re not allowed to speak your traditional language,” Stevens said. “Everything about you, every bit of Native identity in you, you’re not allowed to show.”
From the onset, U.S. boarding schools were, “designed to separate a child from his reservation and family, strip him of his tribal lore and mores, force the complete abandonment of his Native language, and prepare him for never again returning to his people,” according to a revelatory report by the U.S. Department of the Interior in May.
“That’s what my great grandfather had to go through,” Stevens continued.
Like many other children placed in boarding schools, the 8-year-old Quinn ran away, traveling across 50 miles of Great Basin desert to return home.
“He was taken to Stewart and he ran away three separate times,” Stevens said. “Each time he was taken back to Stewart, until they finally let him go.”
The long-awaited review of past efforts by the federal government to assimilate Native American children into white American society released by the Department of the Interior in May revealed how children in Indian Boarding Schools faced beatings, sexual assaults, forced haircuts and strict discipline.
For Native American communities, however, the report was an affirmation of their own oral histories passed down from generation to generation – leading up to the psychological pain experienced by Indigenous people today.
The first students sent to the Stewart Boarding School were from the Nevada Tribes, including the Washoe, Paiutes, and Shoshone. However, from 1946 through 1963 the federal government took children living on reservations hundreds of miles away to the school, including children from the Navajo Nation and hundreds of other tribes across the West.
Growing up, Stevens, now 18, said his classmates only had a partial understanding of American history and knew little about the atrocities committed against the Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone people in the state they now called home.
“It was weird that they didn’t know any of my history, and not even a lick of it,” Stevens said. “Even after I hosted the first run, I’d still have these older adults come up to me and ask what the run was about and why was this boarding school so bad.”
According to the Interior report, at least 53 of the boarding schools operated by the federal government between 1819 and 1969 had burial grounds. Only 33 of those known sites have “marked” burial sites.
The U.S. Department of Interior believes that more burial sites will be discovered as they continue their research.
“It’s the manner of how history is taught that needs to change,” Stevens said. “To say that you’re teaching American history without teaching our part of the history—without teaching our side—you can’t say you’re teaching real American history.”
On the first night of the run tribal citizens from throughout Nevada camped overnight at Sunrise Pass and shared stories and the history of Stewart Indian School.
Stevens said his contribution would be the story of his great grandfather, who passed away in 1986, six years after the school officially shut down.
“Frank Quinn was a really good man. He went to the school three different times,” Stevens said. He said his great-grandfather married a woman named Hazel, whose parents hid her every time the government came. In the winter he would cut wood for those who needed it. Throughout the seasons, he would hunt and collect traditional foods for the elders of his community.
“He was just a really good man. He had every reason not to be. Going through everything he did, he had every reason to be some mean cruel old man for the rest of his life, but he wasn’t. I feel that goes to show the kind of man and kind of character he held till the end.”
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