Ku Stevens is a high school senior with the skill and drive to become an elite runner. But he struggles to find the balance between an exclusive sport that glorifies individual triumph and the values of interconnectedness and community he was raised with on the Paiute reservation in Nevada. Even though he doesn’t have access to a coach, cross-country team, or recruiters, Ku is determined to get a running scholarship.
When the remains of thousands of Native American children are discovered across North America, Ku’s painful family history reemerges. Ku’s own great-grandfather escaped an Indian boarding school by foot at age 8. In an act of reverence, Ku sets out to run the same 50-mile escape route his great-grandfather took.
On the Yerington Paiute reservation in Nevada Kutoven, who goes by Ku, lives with his parents Misty and Delmar Stevens. He’s starting his senior year at a high school where, as one of the only Native students, he is often isolated. The reservation is quiet and Ku is restless: ready to pursue opportunities that exist beyond the rez. He dreams of getting a scholarship from the competitive University of Oregon but he doesn’t know how he’ll get there: even though he’s the fastest kid in town, he doesn’t have a coach or team and doesn’t have the resources to travel for meets attended by recruiters.
But, the pull of the reservation’s Paiute culture and tradition are powerful. Centuries of colonization and federal policy have attempted to break down the Paiute way of life, but people like Ku’s father, fight to maintain this culture. Through Ku and Delmar’s relationship, we begin to understand Ku’s complex connection to his Native identity and how deeply he values community and ancestry, even when it’s at odds with his dreams for the future.
Ku’s parents and classmates petition the school to create a cross-country “team” of one so that he can compete. The school agrees, allocating a budget of $10. When his parents drop Ku off at his first competition, he stands out against the other well-funded, predominantly white teams. At another race at a neighboring Native school, Ku only wants to compete in one event to conserve his energy for an elite race the following day. “A lot of Native people came to support you,” Misty reminds him. He feels guilty but manages to shatter a record at the bigger meet which he hopes will bring awareness to his people.
Ku now races weekly in meets at least 90 minutes away. He dominates on the track, usually crossing the finish line in first place. While the other runners unwind over burgers with their friends, Ku and his family prepare the sacred fire for a ceremonial sweat to cleanse the pressures and stresses of modern society.
Suddenly, everything comes to a standstill. News breaks that the remains of thousands of Native children have been discovered in unmarked graves at former Indian Residential Schools. The news reopens intergenerational wounds that exist across Indian Country. Elders begin telling their personal stories about life at the schools, and Delmar opens up about his grandfather - Ku’s great-grandfather - Frank Quinn. Ku learns that Frank ran away from the Stewart Indian School as a young boy. He was one of tens of thousands of Native children who were ripped away from their family, community, language, and way of life.
When Frank was just 8, he escaped the school in the dead of night, finding his way through dangerous wildlife and harsh terrain, only to be captured and punished. Determined to return to his family, he tried again only to be discovered once more. Somehow on a third attempt, he made it home to the reservation 50 miles away. Running saved his life and preserved a lineage that was nearly erased.
As he runs, Ku draws power from Frank’s story. No competition, lap, or finish will ever be harder than what his people endured for centuries. And while he will likely never be able to find perfect balance between sacred traditions and the world beyond his community, running becomes something that connects him to both his past and future. Ku goes undefeated in both track and cross country. He runs two miles in less than 9 minutes, placing him in the top 20 nationally and shattering a Nevada all-time record. He is named State Champion.
Ku continues finding parallels between Frank’s story and his own. He reveals that he was diagnosed with severe adult depression at age 12, and now believes that these mental health struggles were passed down from previous generations. He finally faces that it’s the intergenerational trauma he wants to leave behind, not his community.
After exploring his family’s history he has a new idea: he will retrace the 50-mile route that his grandfather used to escape.
It’s a small but heartfelt event.
Ku starts stepping into leadership roles and representing his Tribe. He meets Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota), the 1964 Olympic Gold Medalist & Founder who becomes his mentor, empowering him to connect to his past to navigate the future. His sense of what’s possible–what can be contained within one life and identity–begins to expand. He realizes that through his success he can advocate for his people. Ku is recruited by the college of his dreams.. He’s excited but nervous about being the school’s first male Native runner. He uses the summer to plan the second annual Remembrance Run. The attendance is high and includes prominent media outlets and politicians.
Ku packs for college and loads up the truck with his dad. As they drive, Ku considers what’s ahead, his worn running shoes sitting on his lap, his knees bouncing with nerves and excitement ready for the next leg.