Northern Nevada teen’s Remembrance Run to shine light on grandfather’s plight, Indigenous boarding schools

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Ed Andersen / Lyon County News Leader via AP

Ku Stevens runs on a road not far from the Stewart Indian School near Carson City in this photo taken on June 18, 2021. The Yerington High School cross-country runner plans to retrace later this summer route his great-grandfather took when he escaped from the school to his home in Yerington.

Sun, Aug 8, 2021 (2 a.m.)

Frank Quinn wanted to go home, and nothing was going to stop him.

The time was the 1910s, the place was the Stewart Indian School in Carson City. Frank, like other Native American children in the region, had been forced into the government-operated institution, which was more like a combination of an internment camp and military academy. Isolated in an overcrowded, disease-ridden building where he was forbidden to speak his native language and given an unfamiliar name, he was desperate to return to his family on the Yerington Paiute reservation 50 miles away.

He managed to escape and get all the way back to the reservation only to be hauled back to the school. Decades later his great-grandson, Ku Stevens, would grow up hearing what happened next.

“They tied him with rope to a kid he didn’t like so much, and put them in a basement,” Stevens said. “The thinking was, ‘Oh, these kids hate each other. They’re not going to work together to escape.’”

Frank was 8 years old.

Eight.

He was bound, imprisoned, and once again separated from his loved ones.

But he was also defiant.

“Sure enough, he and the other kid figured out a way to get out,” Stevens said. “He ended up escaping three times. After the third time, they left him alone.”

Stories like those of Frank Quinn, who died in 1986, have increasingly come to light and garnered attention in the weeks since the remains of more than 1,000 Native American children were found at schools for Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The shock and outrage over the discoveries is raising awareness about the brutal mistreatment of generations of Native Americans at such institutions in Canada and the U.S., where the Stewart Indian School was among hundreds that operated from the late 19th century to as recently as the 1980s.

These institutions were created to destroy Native American culture and force the assimilation of Indigenous peoples into white society.

The founding principle of the institutions was most notably encapsulated by the founder of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School — to “kill the Indian in him, save the man.”

The goal was to systematically erase students’ ethnic heritage by cutting their hair, giving them American names and an identification number, punishing them for speaking their native languages, replacing their tribal clothing with uniforms, supplanting their native diets, etc. On the other side of the coin, the children were required to speak only English, made to participate in military drills, forced into Christianity, trained in manual labor, etc.

Stacey Montooth, the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said the trauma inflicted by the schools tore the fabric of untold numbers of Native American families — damage that continues to resonate today.

“The methodical destruction of Native American culture through forceful assimilation at the hands of the federal government, severely damaged our lifeways,” she said in an email to the Sun. “Our grandmas and grandpas were stripped of the opportunity to rear our parents in loving, nurturing, and intact households as thousands of our Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe elders were raised in what can be compared to military boot camp. Uncle Sam destroyed our traditional families, and two and three generations later, many of our relatives are still learning how to successfully parent in modern, mainstream society.”

Acknowledging the lasting effects of the institutions, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently ordered a federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to provide a full reckoning of the schools’ history, identify cemeteries and other burial sites, and begin addressing the emotional and societal damage they inflicted on survivors, their families and Native American communities.

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past,” Haaland said in announcing the initiative. “No matter how hard it will be.”

• • •

The Stewart school, now a cultural center and museum, opened in 1890 with 37 children on campus, some of whom came voluntarily while others were effectively kidnapped. With the U.S. government’s 19th-century campaign of genocide creating a plague of poverty and starvation in the Native American population, many parents felt they had little choice but to send their children to the school, where they would at least be fed and clothed.

The conditions, however, were harsh. Parents were forbidden to visit, and little was done to prevent disease besides isolating children when they became contagious. The school was overcrowded, with two children to each bed, and was underfunded.

Medical care was lacking, provided by untrained dorm matrons, resulting in rampant levels of flu, tuberculosis, trachoma (infectious eye disease) and other illnesses. Many died, and reportedly there are more than 100 unmarked graves near the school, which will be included in the federal review.

In video interviews posted on the Stewart school website, survivors recall being subjected to strict discipline and harsh punishment, including beatings, imprisonment and the withholding of food. Corporal punishment came not only from staff but in “hot lines” in which young students walked down columns of older students who were forced to lash their peers with belts.

“By training older students to abuse younger students, the school officials ensured that the cycle of abuse continued in Native families even after they left school,” the current Stewart staff said in an email interview.

The school would undergo shifts through the years, eventually relaxing its assimilation policy and, by the 1970s, allowing students to represent their tribal nations at Indian festivals.

However, alumni reported being punished for speaking their tribal languages as recently as the 1960s.

By the time Stewart closed in 1980, students from an estimated 200 tribes from several Western states had attended it. The total number of students isn’t known, but it numbers in the thousands.

As revealed by survivor stories and video interviews on the school’s website, student experiences varied.

In some cases, students lost the ability to speak to their families and suffered post-traumatic stress and scars from separation anxiety they would carry throughout their lives. Others described Stewart as a place where they escaped the bigotry they faced in mostly white communities, connected with people who shared their culture and learned useful skills.

But as more survivors share their stories in the aftermath of the discoveries in Canada, the long-term damage caused by boarding schools comes into sharper focus.

“The schools created generations of traumatized children who often grew into adults with little experience in parenting and unresolved grief,” the Stewart school staff said. “Many people medicated their pain with intoxicants or obscured it with rage, denial and other destructive emotions. Through telling the stories of intergenerational trauma, Native people can heal and stop the cycle.”

Montooth said the trauma could be seen today in disproportionately high unemployment, low academic success, chronic health problems and other socioeconomic disparities in Native American communities. The federal review, she said, should provide an “aha moment” to elected officials, policymakers and the American public about why these issues exist.

Meanwhile, Native American health advocates say the issue also calls for the need for more mental health support to Indigenous communities to contend with what will be a new round of trauma as survivors relive their experiences.

“Devastated is not the appropriate word. They’re annihilated,” Stacy Bohlen, CEO of the National Indian Health Board, told BuzzFeed. “It’s like they’re walking around in a space and time continuum that is disconnected, in a daze. People are getting retriggered with each new calamity in a way that’s paralyzing. The level of grieving is almost electric.”

• • •

Ku Stevens, Frank Quinn’s great-grandson, was aware of his family’s connection to the school while growing up but wasn’t particularly interested in his tribal heritage. He participated in Paiute tribal events as a child, even wearing traditional tribal clothing, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about it — his father compelled him to do it, he said.

“I was just there for a good time,” he said. “I didn’t really understand why we were doing it.”

But Stevens, who is entering his senior year in high school, said his father’s influence on him eventually sank in, and he began exploring Native American issues. Last summer, that led him to an audiobook version of the influential 1970 nonfiction book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” which documented the systematic destruction of Native American cultures across generations of U.S. policies.

Stevens, a talented runner who won two gold medals in this year’s U.S. Track and Field Junior Olympics, said he finished the book while on a solo training run and had an intense emotional experience.

“I was out in the middle of nowhere, out on an empty road about 10 miles from my house,” he said. “I start crying. I fall to the ground, my knees are in the dirt. My palms are up, my head is down and I’m just crying. And I look up toward the sky, I see the clouds. I looked across the land, and I could just imagine my people out there, and how they weren’t anymore — how they were confined to this reservation. And it broke my heart with that realization.”

It also, however, spurred Stevens into advocacy for Native American issues. So when the discoveries occurred in Canada, he felt compelled to call attention to the boarding schools.

What emerged was a plan to follow through on an idea his father had been mulling for years — to retrace Frank Quinn’s escape route from the Stewart school.

The result was the Remembrance Run, in which Stevens will lead a 50-mile run over two days beginning Saturday morning at the school.

Stevens said the goal of the event was not only to raise awareness of the schools but to honor Quinn, who persevered through his experiences at Stewart to become a stalwart member of his community.

“My great-grandfather was a giving man,” he said. “Back in the Great Depression, he always made sure people had food, that they had lights on at their house and firewood for the winter. My dad believes, and I believe this as well, that this is the native mentality — we’re giving people, and we should always be kind.”

Triumph over tragedy. Compassion over cruelty. At a time when wounds are being reopened for untold numbers of Native American families, perhaps celebrating the story of a lonely but resilient 8-year-old boy can become a source of comfort and hope.

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