Leaders working to return Sacred Red Rock to Kaw Nation share updates with Lawrence crowd

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By the end of this year, Lawrence will be a step closer to reconciliation with the return of Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, or the Sacred Red Rock, to its rightful owners of the Kaw Nation.

The 28-ton red Siouxan quartzite boulder has been at Robinson Park near Lawrence City Hall since it was taken from its natural location at the intersection of the Shunganunga Creek and Kansas River near Tecumseh about 94 years ago. It was then turned into a monument that honored the majority white people who settled in the area. 

Leaders of the Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe / Sacred Red Rock Project spoke to community members Saturday at the Lawrence Public Library about the progress of returning it back to its owners — the original inhabitants of the area, the Kaw Nation.

“For thousands of years and for hundreds of years the Kaw people would visit Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe, not to worship the stone but to have our ceremonies at the stone to the Creator,” said James Pepper Henry, vice-chair of the Kaw Nation.

“I think our people were attracted to the stone because it embodied the qualities of the Creator — it was strong, it was resilient, it stood tall on the landscape. It was very unusual in its color and its shape, and it was also a geographic marker for our people that would travel those waterways.”

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times A crowd listens to a presentation on the Sacred Red Rock, Saturday, April 1, 2023 at the Lawrence Public Library.

Jay T. Johnson, director of the Center for Indigenous Research, Science, and Technology at the University of Kansas, wrote the proposal for the $5 million grant the project received in April 2022 from the Mellon Foundation. 

He said the project team has had an “agreeable process.” Being on the same page and working incredibly well together has left no need to involve legalities. Instead of going through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) repatriation process, the leadership team decided to think of the project more as a “rematriation process” of restoring balance and returning what’s sacred to its home.

“The university is merely the administrator and facilitator,” Johnson said. “On our leadership team is Kaw Nation, so we follow Kaw Nation’s desires in the way in which this project is managed entirely. We want this to be an ongoing relationship.”

With the grant, the sacred rock will be relocated to Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, located near Council Grove, Kansas. The land that makes up Allegawaho Park, which the Kaw Nation in 2002 purchased back, is a portion of the final reservation lands of the Kaw Nation in Kansas before their relocation to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1873.  

The majority of the grant money, though, will be used to develop infrastructure with educational visuals situated with the sacred rock at Allegawaho to honor history and allow visitors to learn about the sacred rock.

As additions to the project, the team is participating in creating a documentary. They will also be releasing a book with University Press of Kansas at the end of 2023, Johnson said.

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times From left to right, Saturday’s panelists included Sydney Pursel, Dave Loewenstein, James Pepper Henry and Jay T. Johnson.

Along with Johnson and Pepper Henry, Sydney Pursel (Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska), curator for public practice at Spencer Museum of Art, and Dave Loewenstein, local muralist and community organizer, sat on Saturday’s panel. As members of the project’s leadership team, they shared with community members the history of the sacred rock as well as plans to return it to the Kaw Nation. 

The event was meant to encourage community engagement with the project and serve as an update to the public, Johnson said.

Though the official date the boulder will be moved is currently unknown, Johnson said the project is set to be done in 2023. He noted that Robinson Park will be closed with fences for a period of time this summer to allow for construction work, and specific dates will be shared with the community later. 

Pepper Henry explained the rock was one of the Kaw people’s most sacred items, and at one point, they had more than 150 songs for the rock that paid homage to the Creator. When the local settlers stole the rock and took ownership, the Kaw people were further erased. Many Kansans today still don’t know the state was named after the Kaw, formerly known as the Kanza, people, Pepper Henry said.

“If we don’t have our language, and we don’t have our culture, and we don’t have our history, who are we as a people? We lose our identity,” Pepper Henry said. “It’s a daily struggle to maintain our identity as Indigenous peoples and as the Kaw people, and every day we’re further erased from the landscape, so it’s important for us to protect and preserve those things that are sacred to us because nobody else will.”

Pepper Henry recalled a lesson he learned from his grandfather at a young age: if something is taken from its original location, something else must be laid in its place to “fill that void,” he said. That’s why during fall 2022, he and a group traveled along the Kaw River to the approximate original location of the sacred rock. They prayed and set offerings there to fill the void left when the rock was stolen.

While sharing some history about the sacred rock and the Kaw people, Pursel explained there is known information about the capture of the rock, like how settlers were able to move the rock fairly easily because of the train station located near the water. There’s little known information, though, about what happened next. Pepper Henry said the team welcomes any historical records or information people may have about the dedication of the rock in Robinson Park.

Maya Hodison/Lawrence Times Sydney Pursel, curator for public practice at Spencer Museum of Art, speaks during a panel discussion Saturday afternoon about the return of Sacred Red Rock.

The team is working on a strategy to remove the plaque on the front of the rock, which reveres the primarily white “pioneers” who settled in the area, while maintaining the integrity of the rock. Pepper Henry said though plans for the plaque aren’t yet finalized, the Kaw Nation would like to find a home for it in Lawrence, whether that be in a museum or with a historical organization.

One audience member during the Q&A portion of the event offered a suggestion to also rededicate Robinson Park to the Kaw Nation, giving the tribal nation that land back, though so much more than that area belongs to them. Johnson said during the early planning stages in 2019, project team members discussed that possibility.

At the end of the panel discussion, attendees were encouraged to take a walk together from the library to Robinson Park to observe the rock and participate in an activity. Loewenstein, with help from Pursel and team member Pauline Sharp, created an activity guide with sensory exercises, areas to brainstorm what could “fill the void” once the sacred rock is removed, and more.

The activity guide will soon be posted to the project’s website, Loewenstein said, and community members are encouraged to visit the rock, complete the activities and share their results with the project team. They can then email their work or drop off their sheets to Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.

The Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe / Sacred Red Rock Project is led by members of the Kaw Nation in collaboration with the City of Lawrence, University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art, Kanza Heritage Society and others. More information on the project is available on its website, sacredredrock.com.

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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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