Lawrence, Kan. — James Pepper Henry was in his 20s the first time he saw the massive quartzite boulder in downtown Lawrence.
The sheer size of the 20-plus-ton red rock sacred to the Kaw people surprised him. Its significance overwhelmed him.
“The hairs kind of stood up on my arms,” Pepper Henry said. Thirty years later he’s vice chairman of the Kaw Nation and CEO of the First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. “This was something that needed to come back to our people.”
Pepper Henry had grown up hearing stories about the boulder, called Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe in the Kanza language, and about his people’s ceremonies and songs related to it.
“We belong to it and we have an obligation to care for it,” he said. “It’s really an altar for us. … It was like our church. Our church was taken away from us.”
White people forcibly removed the Kaw from Kansas in 1873 after decades of shrinking the tribe’s reservation lands down from millions of acres.
Then, in the 1920s, residents of Lawrence who feared Topekans would beat them to the punch hauled the boulder away from the junction of the Kansas River and Shunganunga Creek between the two cities.
They placed it in Lawrence and turned it into a monument to the arrival of white people — specifically, the city’s founders.
“To the pioneers of Kansas,” they wrote on a plaque they attached to the rock, “who in devotion to human freedom came into a wilderness, suffered hardships and faced dangers and death to found this state in righteousness.”
“It was just another way to kind of erase the memory of our people in Kansas,” Pepper Henry said.
Kansas is named after the Kaw, or Kanza, people.
Robbed of their territory and eventually pushed into what is now Oklahoma, the Kaw faced starvation and diseases, such as smallpox, that killed thousands and nearly obliterated the tribe. By around 1915, fewer than 200 people survived.
Today the Kaw Nation has about 3,500 citizens.
In 2020, its citizens voted to request that Lawrence return the rock to the Kaw Nation. The goal: To move the rock to Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, on land near Council Grove that the tribe regained in the early 2000s.
The Lawrence City Commission agreed.
Now, with grant funding, an effort is underway to create a new home for the boulder at the Allegawaho park.
In all, the process could take a few years. A project team brings together representatives from the Kaw Nation, the Kanza Heritage Society, Lawrence city government, the University of Kansas and other organizations to carry out the process.
That includes not just moving the sacred rock, but publishing a book and working on a documentary.
And it includes figuring out changes to Robinson Park, where the boulder currently stands perched on a stone foundation. Those changes will recognize the Kaw tribe and other Indigenous peoples in the space where the rock stood for so long without formal acknowledgment of its original significance and the people who had been forced from this region.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.
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