The feature documentary Remaining Native tells the story of Ku Stevens (Yerington/Paiute), who at 18 years old dreams of running towards a future as an elite athlete, but when the remains of thousands of Native children are discovered across North America, Ku's painful family history is unearthed and Ku begins to reexamine his own identity. For over a century, tens of thousands of Indigenous children were forced into boarding school institutions, including Ku’s Great Grandfather, many never returned.
In an act of remembrance and reconciliation, Ku runs the 50-mile escape route his great grandfather took as he fled from Indian boarding school at only 8 years old. As America begins a long-overdue reckoning for the atrocities at Indian boarding schools, Remaining Native reveals a coming-of-age story that asks if it’s possible to run from home without running away from who you are.
When the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children are discovered in unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools in Canada, intergenerational wounds reopen across Indian Country and beyond, especially for 18 year old Ku Stevens, a Native American runner from rural Nevada. Frank Quinn, Ku’s great-grandfather escaped from the Stewart Indian School and running may have saved his life. When he was just 8 years old, in the middle of the night, young Frank trekked 50 miles, crossing over mountains and deserts, avoiding dangerous wildlife to make it back home to the Paiute reservation, only to be recaptured, punished and brought back twice. Despite two failed attempts, Frank was still determined to escape the brutal conditions of Indian boarding school and finally on the third try, he succeeded.
For 150 years, hundreds of these schools across the country committed cultural genocide, stripping children away from family, community, and language and subjecting them to severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Many children never returned.
The recent discoveries and resurfaced memory of Frank Quinn’s escape prompts Ku to run the same 50 mile escape route his great-grandfather ran as a small boy, not for personal glory but to connect with his past and perhaps discover a new path forward. Through his “Remembrance Run,” Ku begins to see the parallels between Frank’s story and his own, as he excavates his personal relationship with intergenerational trauma and reconnects to his cultural identity through running. Although the stakes are different, both Ku and his great-grandfather, rely on their legs to overcome significant obstacles and guide them towards a better future where they can live up to their full potential.
Growing up in Northwest Nevada, home to onion farms and an old copper mine, Ku lives with his Mother (Misty) and Father (Delmar) on the Paiute reservation. A senior in high school, where few share his background, Ku dreams of following his idol Steve “Pre Fontaine '' to the University of Oregon. However the road to Oregon is long and despite being the fastest kid in town, Ku doesn’t have a coach or a cross country team and lacks the resources to travel to meets and catch the eye of recruiters. Ku is caught between worlds as he fights to break into the circle of elite runners, where individual triumph is valued above all else, without losing connection to his Native heritage, which teaches that no one is above anyone else and everything and everyone is interconnected.
As the film unfolds, Ku battles rivals on the track, garners international support through his “Remembrance Run” and discovers a new role model in a Native American Olympian. As Ku navigates this pivotal point in his life and delves into his family's past he understands the complexities of Native American identity and finds greater meaning in running and his future. Most importantly, Ku learns that determination beyond anything else, is a tool of survival both on and off the track.
ABOUT THE DIRECTOR
My connection to this story is deeply personal. Like Ku, I’m also a descendant of an Indian residential school survivor.
In the early 1900’s, my great-grandmother, Mary Mitchell, was 10 years old when she was forcibly taken from the Mohawk reservation on St. Regis Island and was placed into a Catholic boarding school for Indian children in Upstate, NY. There she endured physical, mental, and sexual abuse. She was deterred from speaking her native language Mohawk with the threat of a needle being stuck in her tongue if she did and was forced to give up her Mohawk name, Kahnonsahwi, for a Catholic one, Mary. At boarding school, she was taught the responsibilities of being a housewife and when she was old enough she was sent to live with her sister in Rochester, NY as a newly reformed “American”.
When I came across Ku’s story and his Remembrance Run, I thought about my great-grandmother and wondered about what her life would have been like if she was able to escape like his great-grandfather.
I felt an obligation as a storyteller, filmmaker, and descendant of a boarding school survivor to become a caretaker of her past and one to those who share a similar story; so much so that I reached out to Ku and his family as a complete
stranger. As we spoke, we talked about what it was like to see the world reacting to the discovery of the unmarked graves of children at the Kamloops Indian residential school and how the history of residential schools and the horrors of assimilation policy had been taught to both of us at a young age. Most importantly, we talked about the need for healing. For both of us, the goal of his run and my film is to bring awareness to what happened at Indian boarding schools and to shine a light on the resilience of Indigenous people as the country reckons with the brutal attack on native culture.
My work as a filmmaker has often been driven by stories that encourage introspection. I push myself behind the camera to represent my subjects honestly with the passion that my Mohawk grandmother and traditional storyteller had for stories. The strong visuals, music, and subjects that I am drawn to in my work have their roots in those magical tales my grandmother used to tell.
Your support of this project means we can continue to tell Ku's story and that of so many others. The film will employ Native American musicians and visual artists to create the score and graphic elements of the project to fully interweave Indigenous voices/perspectives through our entire process.
-Paige Bethmann, Director/Producer