Mellon Foundation awards $5M grant to return sacred prayer rock to Kaw Nation, create public installation

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The scared red boulder, pictured Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, is a red quartzite rock that sits in Robinson Park in downtown Lawrence across from City Hall. In 1929, a group of Lawrence officials arranged to take the boulder from the Shunganunga Creek near Tecumseh, where the creek joins with the Kansas River — a site that was sacred to the Kanza tribe.

Story updated at 5:27 p.m. Monday:

The Mellon Foundation has awarded a $5 million grant to help return a sacred prayer rock to the Kaw Nation that was stolen from the tribe’s homelands nearly a century ago.

The Mellon Foundation announced in a news release on Monday that it had awarded the grant to pay for the return of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, a 28-ton red Siouxan quartzite boulder, which has been located in Lawrence’s Robinson Park for the past 93 years. The grant will also fund a public installation for the boulder.

The project will relocate In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe — which is pronounced “EE(n) ZHOO-jay wah-HO-bay” and literally means “sacred red rock” — to Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, near Council Grove. The land has been owned by the tribe since 2002 and is a portion of the final reservation lands of the Kaw Nation in Kansas before their 1873 relocation to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. The 2.5-year project will be 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.

Vice-Chairman James Pepper Henry said the Kaw Nation was grateful for the support from the Mellon Foundation, and that the grant would also provide resources to implement an “interpretive plan” and infrastructure for visitors to learn about the Kaw people, the original inhabitants of Kansas.

“The Kaw Nation is grateful and humbled to receive generous support from the Mellon Foundation for the return of our sacred ancestor In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe,” Pepper Henry said in the release.

Pepper Henry said the Kaw Nation looks forward to working in cooperation with the city, KU, and other project partners to facilitate the process, and to strengthen the Kaw Nation’s relationship and visibility with the residents of Kansas.

This rock in Lawrence was once located along the banks of the Kansas River at the mouth of Shunganunga Creek. The Kaw people used the 10-foot tall red rock with religious ceremonies. In 1929, the rock was moved to Robinson Park, next to Lawrence’s City Hall, to honor the town’s founders.

The project will also recognize the history of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe. The release states that a key aspect of the project is acknowledging and redressing the harm done when In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe was moved from its original location at the confluence of the Shunganunga Creek and Kansas River near Tecumseh to Robinson Park in Lawrence in 1929 to become the base for a monument to the city’s “pioneers.”

“This project opens an unprecedented opportunity to document the unfolding of a reparative process between Kaw Nation and the City of Lawrence,” the release states.

In 1929, a group of Lawrence officials and community members arranged to take the boulder from its longtime resting place along the Shunganunga Creek near Topeka, according to newspaper archives reviewed by the Journal-World. The Lawrence group pulled the boulder from the creek using chains and cables and a borrowed crane, and the Santa Fe Railroad was used to get the boulder to Lawrence, heading off a competing campaign by a Topeka man to bring the boulder to the lawn of the Statehouse. The boulder was then fitted with a base and a plaque and made into a monument honoring the city’s founders.

The effort to return the boulder was spurred in part by an effort led by Pauline Eads Sharp, a member of the Kaw Nation Cultural Committee, and Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein to recall the stories of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe and redress its misuse by the City of Lawrence, according to the release. Sharp and Loewenstein began working together in 2015, and the project ultimately led to a collaboration with the Mid-America Arts Alliance, Lawrence community members and members of the Kaw Nation.

The Kaw Nation formally requested the return of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe from the City of Lawrence at the end of November 2020, as the Journal-World reported. In March 2021, the Lawrence City Commission voted unanimously to adopt a joint resolution with Douglas County to offer a formal apology to the people of the Kaw Nation for appropriating and defacing the sacred rock and agreeing to its return to the Kaw Nation “without conditions.”

Sharp said in the release that the Kanza Heritage Society was honored to support the efforts of the Kaw Nation and the city to return In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe to the Kaw people. Lawrence Mayor Courtney Shipley said the city was pleased to partner with KU and Lawrence community members in “this process of reconciliation and relationship building with the Kaw Nation.”

The $5 million grant to support the project, which was awarded to KU, will fund the relocation of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe, infrastructure and interpretation at Allegawaho Park, and programming in Lawrence and Council Grove that “engages the community in this multifaceted story and envisions possibilities for the place now known as Robinson Park.”

As part of the project, the team will record events and interviews with participants and community members; produce a series of edited stories; and publish a volume describing the reparative process and the geological history of the boulder. Working with Kaw Nation elders, the team will also document the tribe’s relationship with In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe and its inclusion in the Kaw prayer cycle. The release states that in all aspects of the project, the team will follow the direction of the Kaw Nation.


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