Kaw Nation leader recalls first visit to sacred rock in Lawrence, asks for tribe to be represented in park once it is returned

photo by: City of Lawrence

Kaw Nation Vice-Chairman James Pepper Henry speaks with Mayor Courtney Shipley as part of the City Commission's meeting on April 19, 2022.

Story updated at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday:

Kaw Nation Vice-Chairman James Pepper Henry told city leaders Tuesday that he’d heard about the sacred stone In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe his whole life, and distinctly recalled the first time he was able to visit it at its current location in Lawrence.

“I was very impressed and overwhelmed with seeing In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe for the first time,” said Pepper Henry, who said he first visited the stone over 30 years ago with his great uncle Luther Pepper, who was vice chairman of the tribe at the time.

“I asked my uncle at that time the history of the rock and why it ended up in Robinson Park and why it wasn’t back with the Kaw people and he said the climate wasn’t right at that time to try to have the rock returned to us. But a lot of things have happened in the last 30 years, and I think attitudes have changed.”

Pepper Henry spoke to the Lawrence City Commission at its meeting Tuesday as part of an update on a project to return the rock to the Kaw Nation. The 28-ton red quartzite boulder, In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe — which is pronounced “EE(n) ZHOO-jay wah-HO-bay” and literally means “sacred red rock” — was stolen from the homelands of the Kaw Nation in 1929 and made into a monument to the settlers of Lawrence. It has been located since then in Robinson Park, which is across from City Hall in downtown Lawrence.

photo by: Kim Callahan/Journal-World

The Shunganunga boulder, pictured Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, is a 23-ton 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.

Pepper Henry said the Kaw Nation was grateful to the City Commission and the residents of Lawrence for agreeing to return the sacred rock, saying it has been a long time coming. He also said the Kaw Nation was very interested in working with the city regarding what will happen next with Robinson Park, saying that the last thing the Kaw Nation wanted was to erase its presence in Lawrence.

In response to a follow-up question from Mayor Courtney Shipley, Pepper Henry said that although there is a lot to consider and it would need to be a conversation with the community in Lawrence, the Kaw Nation would like to see the tribe, as well as other tribes that have had a presence in the area, represented in the park.

“We’re virtually invisible to the people of Kansas right now,” Pepper Henry said. “I would say if I were to survey 10 people on the streets of Lawrence and ask them where the name of their state comes from, 9 out of 10 people could not tell you that the state of Kansas is named after the Kaw people or the Kanza people.”

The presentation included information about the recently announced $5 million grant that the Mellon Foundation awarded the project to return In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe to the tribe. Pepper Henry said the plan is to relocate the stone to the Kaw Nation’s Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park, near Council Grove. The grant, which was awarded to project partner University of Kansas as a facilitator, will also fund an educational public installation and other efforts.

Jay Johnson, KU geography professor and director of the KU Center for Indigenous Science, said that the grant includes funding to facilitate a discussion about the future of the park and the creation of a plan. He said the grant also includes funding for a replica of the plaque now affixed to the stone if it cannot be removed.

Local artist Dave Loewenstein also spoke to the commission. Loewenstein and Pauline Eads Sharp, a member of the Kaw Nation Cultural Committee, helped lead a local effort that began in 2020 to address the topic of the boulder and the park. That project, “Between the Rock and a Hard Place,” led to a formal request from the Kaw Nation at the end of November 2020 for the City of Lawrence to return In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe to the tribe.

Loewenstein provided information about the geological history of the boulder, its significance to the tribe, and the circumstances of how the boulder was taken and used for the city monument. The boulder previously was located along the Shunganunga Creek near Topeka, and was central to the tribe’s song-prayer ceremonies before the tribe was forcibly relocated to Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma in 1873. Loewenstein noted that the plaque makes no mention of the tribe, and that as part of the dedication of the stone as a city monument, the park was renamed for Charles Robinson, who was the first governor of Kansas and also a superintendent at the school then known as Haskell Institute.

Commissioners thanked the presenters and expressed continued support for the project. Pepper Henry said the project team has about 2.5 years to facilitate the return of In ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe and the other aspects of the grant.

In other business, the commission:

• Voted unanimously to authorize a contract with Clarion Associates in the amount of $383,650 to provide consulting services for the city’s upcoming update of its land development code. The code guides allowed land uses, building density, parking requirements and various other aspects of development and has not been updated since 2006. As part of the motion, the commission voted to defer a related resolution to appoint a steering committee to advise, review, and provide feedback to the consultant as part of the process.

• Received an update on the process to consider potential changes to how the mayor and commissioners are elected and other changes to the governing body. The commission gave staff the go-ahead to proceed with a proposal to collect public input in May in order for the commission to make a decision in June regarding whether potential changes should be put on the ballot for a vote.

• Received an update on goals related to public safety that were set as part of the commission’s strategic plan. The strategic plan has five goal or “outcome” areas, and city staff members have been providing updates to the commission on progress from each area.

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