‘We’re virtually invisible’: Kaw Nation leader wants to prevent erasure when Sacred Red Rock is returned

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When the Sacred Red Rock is returned to the Kaw Nation from Lawrence, the Kaw people want to ensure that they are not erased with it. 

The 28-ton quartzite boulder, Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, has sat at Robinson Park in Lawrence for 93 years, since it was moved from its natural location at the intersection of the Shunganunga Creek and Kansas River near Tecumseh, Kansas. It was then made to be a monument that honored the majority white “pioneers” who settled in the area.

The Sacred Red Rock holds deep historical, cultural and spiritual meaning to the Kaw People. It has been more than a year since the city formally apologized for the theft of the boulder and pledged its return to its rightful owners, and a $5 million grant will soon help make that happen. But its absence will raise another issue.

James Pepper Henry, vice-chairman of the Kaw Nation, spoke to Lawrence city commissioners during their meeting Tuesday evening.

“The last thing the Kaw Nation, the Kaw people want to do is to erase ourselves even further from the conversation in Lawrence, Kansas,” Pepper Henry said. “And so we would like to have a presence in some way or another, be recognized, along with the other Indigenous communities that have had occupation in that area for time immemorial, and be recognized at Robinson Park.”

Mayor Courtney Shipley agreed, and she asked how the city can support that effort. 

“I hate to pressure you, sir, Mr. Pepper Henry — but there’s so many things I know people have questions about,” Shipley said. “… I want to make sure again that you have everything from us — if there is space for public engagement, or what you need from us to make sure those conversations go forward because I’m also interested in what should be done with that space.” 

Shipley also said the park itself should be renamed. 

August Rudisell / Lawrence Times file photo In this photo from April 29, 2021, crews assess In´zhúje´waxóbe, the prayer rock of the Kaw Nation.

Robinson park was named for Kansas’ first governor, Charles Robinson, who would later become superintendent of what was then called Haskell Institute. It was a boarding school where Indigenous children were forced to abandon their heritage, language and traditions, and assimilate. 

“We’re virtually invisible to the people of Kansas right now,” Pepper Henry said.

He said he thought 9 out of 10 people on the street probably don’t know this state gets its name from the Kanza people. 

“So it’s important for us to have a presence, a continuing presence in the state of Kansas and city of Lawrence,” he said. “And so from our perspective, the Kaw Nation’s perspective, whatever conversations are had about Robinson Park and the future of it, we’d like to be part of that conversation, and hopefully increase our profile there in the state that bears our name.”

Jay Johnson (Screenshot)

Shipley also asked University of Kansas professor Jay Johnson, who is facilitating the project leadership team, if future conversations might include a discussion of changing the name of Robinson Center on KU’s campus. 

Johnson said that wasn’t necessarily part of the grant for the project. 

“But I’m sure that once we have more public dialogue about Charles Robinson and his history, I would imagine there will be more conversations on KU’s campus as well,” he said. 

Shipley said she wanted to make sure that groups such as KU’s First Nations Student Association would be invited to participate in those dialogues going forward. 

Read more about the grant in this article.

More information about the history of the Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe project can be found on its previous website, and all updates moving forward can be found on its new website.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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