Kaw Nation members participate in a friendship dance Tuesday in Lawrence to mark the formal return to the tribe of a 24-ton prayer rock appropriated by Lawrence officials in 1929 to create a monument to white settlers. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
LAWRENCE — Kaw Nation Tribal Council vice chair Jim Pepper Henry first laid eyes about 30 years ago on a distinct red rock sacred to the tribe that was seized nearly 100 years ago by Lawrence residents determined to transform the massive piece of glacier-deposited quartzite into a monument to white settlers.
A bronze plaque affixed to the stone in 1929 at Robinson Park paid tribute to immigrants of the 1850s who professed a dedication to freedom while venturing “into a wilderness, suffered hardships and faced dangers and death to found this state in righteousness.” The monument celebrating the city’s founders, including abolitionists, but neglected to acknowledge eradication and removal of the Kaw Nation from land upon which the Sacred Red Rock was located nor did the text recognize spiritual harm done when the stone was uprooted from confluence of the Shunganunga Creek and Kansas River near Tecumseh.
On Tuesday, Pepper Henry marked unconditional return of the 24-ton boulder to the Kaw Nation and preparations to transport Iⁿ‘zhúje‘waxóbe to a memorial park in Council Grove. The prayer stone, which could be equated to a church structure, was recently removed from its base in a Lawrence park ahead of the journey. The stone was scheduled to be moved Wednesday to land owned by the tribe since 2002.
“When our Kaw people gave an inch, the burgeoning Americans didn’t just take a mile, they took everything,” Pepper Henry said. “Our lands. The bison that sustained us. Our children, our language, our history, our culture — and our sacred items. Even our name was taken from us and given to the state of Kansas.”
‘Home for centuries’
Pepper Henry said Europeans who came looking for freedom and refuge demonstrated the power of a relentlessly expansionist nation by oppressing Kaw people and other natives. Difficulties faced by settlers were nothing compared to hardships the Kaw Nation endured the past 200 years, he said.
“It was our home for centuries,” said Pepper Henry, the tribe’s historic preservation officer. “It is our wish in the 21st century to strengthen our ties to our homeland and to educate the citizens of Kansas about our people. We must exercise our sovereignty as a distinct indigenous nation to reclaim and assert our right to the tangible and intangible things that make us who we are.”
The tribe was forced into present-day Oklahoma nearly 150 years ago. Their reservation was reduced by treaty from 22 million acres to a 5-acre cemetery in Newkirk, Oklahoma. The estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Kaw at the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition was compressed to a mere 194 people over the next century. The tribe now numbers 3,900, with one-fourth residing in Oklahoma, and the remainder in the 49 other states and several other countries.
In 2020, the Kaw Nation formally requested Lawrence repatriate the stone. Members of the Lawrence City Commission voted in 2021 for a resolution declaring the city’s intention to return the rock and formally apologize to the tribe. The relocation project has been supported by a $5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation’s monuments project to the University of Kansas.
Sydney Pursel, curator of public practice at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art and a member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, said she felt an affinity for Kaw people who were relocated just as her Iowa Tribe was in the 1800s. She joined others on a canoe trip to visit the site where the boulder — carried thousands of years ago by glaciers from southwest Minnesota to the south bank of the Kansas River — was placed by nature. She said it was right to mark milestones of repatriation, apology and sharing.
“It has not been a contentious process with local governments, the university and community all working together to do the right thing,” Pursel said during the public ceremony recognizing return of the prayer rock.
‘That has changed’
Gov. Laura Kelly said she was privileged to pay respects to the Kaw Nation and celebrate return of the grandfather rock to its rightful stewards. She said it was important to acknowledge the park where the ceremony was occurring was indigenous land under the direction of the city of Lawrence.
She said the rock was taken by Lawrence residents before “Kansans understood and valued tribal peoples, their cultures and their traditions. Thankfully, that has changed.”
Lisa Larsen, the mayor of Lawrence, read the resolution adopted by the Lawrence City Commission and the Douglas County Commission expressing regret for the 1929 seizure of the rock. The resolution apologized for defacing the boulder by attaching the plaque celebrating the incursion by white settlers.
“The governing bodies of both the city and county desire to offer a heartfelt apology to the people of the Kaw Nation,” Larsen said. “We honor and commend the people of the Kaw Nation and their native people for their stewardship, for their cherishment and for their protection of the lands of the city, county and state for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.”
Kim Jenkins, chair of the Kaw Nation Tribal Council, said the gathering in Lawrence with about 300 people was touching. It included an honor song and drumming as well as friendship dancing. Members of the tribe plan to participate in private ceremonies addressing reconnection with the boulder.
“Once the rock goes back at a tribal place … there will be a closing, but yet an opening,” she said. “With our youth, you’ll be able to bring back older traditions that create new ones.”
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