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Lawrence community gathering celebrates return of the Sacred Red Rock to the Kaw Nation

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Community members overflowed a tent set up to accommodate those in attendance for a celebration Tuesday as the Sacred Red Rock is finally being returned to the Kaw Nation after nearly a century in possession of the City of Lawrence.

James Pepper Henry, tribal vice chair of the Kaw Nation, said the return of the Sacred Red Rock, Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, was a historic moment for the Kaw People and for the citizens of Kansas in ongoing reconciliation efforts.

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The massive red Siouxan quartzite boulder holds deep historical, cultural and spiritual meaning to the Kaw Nation. The city formally apologized for the theft of the boulder in March 2021 and pledged its return.

The Mellon Foundation in spring 2022 announced a $5 million grant to assist with the project, which includes moving the boulder. The majority of the grant money, though, will be used to develop infrastructure with educational visuals situated with the sacred rock at Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park — land the Kaw Nation owns near Council Grove — to honor history and allow visitors to learn about it.

Tuesday’s event was a celebration that included gifts, an Honor Song and dancing.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Attendees overflowed from the tent during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, Aug. 29, 2023.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Sydney Pursel, curator for public practice at the Spencer Museum of Art, begins introductions during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, Aug. 29, 2023.

“As an Indigenous person, I am extremely honored and humbled to be a part of this project and this historic event,” said Sydney Pursel, co-principal investigator for the Sacred Red Rock Project and curator for public practice at Spencer Museum of Art. “I am in awe that Governor Kelly, Mayor Larsen, and the Lawrence City Commission are present to support this effort. It is my hope that the relationships established throughout this project and further concretized with the ceremonious Return of the Rock event will continue long into the future, so that Kaw Nation’s presence is strengthened in the state that bears its name.” 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Sydney Pursel greets Gov. Laura Kelly at the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, Aug. 29, 2023.

Gov. Laura Kelly spoke during the event.

“The Sacred Red Rock has long been part of Kansas’ history, and I am honored to participate in its return to its rightful stewards,” Kelly said. “This event marks a significant step forward in ensuring we respect and honor Indigenous peoples, cultures, and traditions.” 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Gov. Laura Kelly speaks during the event.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times A young person smirks after the Kansas flag fell over during Gov. Laura Kelly’s speech discussing how colonizers stole the land from people indigenous to Kansas.
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen speaks during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, Aug. 29, 2023.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kaw Nation Tribal Vice Chair James Pepper Henry speaks during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, Aug. 29, 2023.

Pepper Henry spoke of what else was taken from the Kanza People, including their language, history, culture and sacred items.

“Even our name was taken from us and given to the state, Kansas,” Pepper Henry said. “As a colleague of mine once said, we were casualties of a relentless, emerging nation. Europeans came to these lands seeking freedom and refuge from oppression, only to take away our freedom and to suppress and oppress our people.”

“In fact, the words ‘Devotion to human freedom,’ in honor of the settlers of Lawrence, were cast in bronze and branded to our grandfather, Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe,” Pepper Henry continued.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times The plaque that had been affixed to the Sacred Red Rock will be viewable at the Watkins Museum.

The bronze plaque revering white settlers that had been affixed to the Sacred Red Rock was removed on July 31. It was on display Tuesday, and it will be viewable at the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence as part of a permanent future exhibition.

Pepper Henry spoke of how land grant universities, funded by the sale of Kaw lands, benefited from displacement and ethnic cleansing of Kaw people so that descendants of white settlers could receive advanced educations.

“At the same time, our children were taken from our families and sent to government-supported parochial boarding schools — not to become doctors and lawyers, but to be molded into servants and laborers to feed the American industrial complex,” Pepper Henry said.

“The Kaw Nation applauds the recent legislation that allows for in-state tuition to state-supported universities for Native American citizens whose tribes have Aboriginal or historic ties to Kansas. However, it is our hope that this is about the first step in eventually offering scholarships full scholarships to any Kaw citizens seeking higher education in the state of Kansas and to other Native American citizens,” Pepper Henry continued, drawing applause from those in attendance.

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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Sydney Pursel (second from right) watches as her mentor, Kaw Nation Tribal Vice Chair James Pepper Henry, speaks during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe event.

In thanking the city for this rematriation, Pepper Henry said that like Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, the Kanza People will bear the scars of colonialist expansion.

“And just like Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, our people are strong and resilient, and we continue to persevere through adversity,” he said. “And we can’t change the injustices of the past, but we can acknowledge that they occurred, and we can strive for reconciliation.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Robin Shields beaded a City of Lawrence medallion to be presented to leaders of the Kaw Nation.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrene Mayor Lisa Larsen gifts the beaded medallion Shields made to Kaw Nation Tribal Chair Kim Jenkins during the event.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Lawrence City Commissioner Courtney Shipley presents Kaw Nation Tribal Chair Kim Jenkins with sage from South Dakota.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kaw Nation Tribal Vice Chair James Pepper Henry (right) and Kaw Nation Tribal Chair Kim Jenkins (center) gift a blanket to Gov. Laura Kelly.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Kaw Nation Tribal Vice Chair James Pepper Henry and Kaw Nation Tribal Chair Kim Jenkins gift Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larsen with a blanket.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times James Pepper Henry gifts a blanket to Steve Nowak, executive director of the Watkins Museum of History.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Francis Arpan (right), president of Haskell Indian Nations University, is gifted a blanket by Kaw Nation Tribal Vice Chair James Pepper Henry.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Jancita Warrington, executive director of Kansas’ Office of Native American Affairs, is gifted a blanket by James Pepper Henry.
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Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Indian Ave drum group sit after the Honor Song, which concluded the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe event.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Local musician Jason Phoenix leans against a tree during the Return of In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe.

Leaders at the event asked people not to observe or attend the tribal events that would take place at Robinson Park, nor follow the convoy of Kaw citizens to Council Grove.

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Molly Adams (she/her), photographer for The Lawrence Times, is a Haskell alum with a passion for photojournalism. She strives to create authentic images that portray the true lives of Lawrence community members.

She can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com, and her public work can be found on her website. Check out more of her work for the Times here.

— Reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this post.

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Lawrence community gathering celebrates return of the Sacred Red Rock to the Kaw Nation

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Community members overflowed a tent set up to accommodate those in attendance for a celebration Tuesday as the Sacred Red Rock is finally being returned to the Kaw Nation after nearly a century in possession of the City of Lawrence.

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