LAWRENCE, Kansas— The bolder huge red bolt standing in a downtown park has no place here.
And after almost a century, the Kaw tribe reclaims the rock that, generation after generation, its people have held as a sacred altar.
This audacious 20+ ton quartzite is now destined for tribal lands in hopes it can strengthen the frayed bond between the Kaw, or Kanza, people and the state that took their land and their sacred stone – even their name.
“I have a little melancholy feeling when I see it,” said James Pepper Henry, vice president of the Kaw Nation. “It’s a reminder to us as the Kaw people of what has been taken from us.”
The Stone Saga has come to represent the raw history of what is now known as Kansas. In some ways, it symbolizes what native tribes view as invasion and genocide.
No ordinary rock
When the titanic force of a glacier encountered a billion-and-a-half-year-old quartzite bedrock on the northern plains, the rock broke, it moved, but it didn’t collapse. . About 700,000 years ago, the glacier bulldozed south into what is now Kansas.
“Less resistant rocks were just blown to dust,” said Andreas Möller, an associate professor of geology at the University of Kansas, as he stood near the rock. “It’s a survivor. It’s tough and resilient, and here it is.”
Today it stands in a small park surrounded on three sides by busy streets and the Kansas River, or Kaw, on the fourth.
This is the same spot where Lawrence’s white boosters backed him up in 1929. They ripped him off the shore about 25 miles upriver, brought him on a wagon, and bolted a plate to the rock in the honor of the city’s abolitionist founders – who were also the people who were only able to settle in the area by pushing back the native Kaw.
This rock is sacred to the Kaw like Pepper Henry. He said his uncle first introduced him to the rock the tribe calls Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe nearly three decades ago, and he vividly remembers his first sight.
“I had goosebumps because of its magnitude. But I knew how important it was for our people,” he said. “I could feel its presence. And that rock, it’s come a long way from its place of origin. It’s not from here.”
Pepper Henry lives in Oklahoma. His Kaw ancestors roamed much of the land now called Kansas hunting buffalo for centuries. But federal troops forced them into smaller and smaller reservations, then dislodged the tribe entirely, pushing them south to Oklahoma in the 1870s.
“Most people in Kansas don’t know that the state is named after a group of Native American tribe people, the Kanza,” Pepper Henry said. “We’ve been pretty much wiped out of Kansas, and we’re invisible to most people here.”
A few years ago, a tribal leader and some activists from Lawrence began pushing to return the rock to the Kaw Nation. Jay Johnson, who teaches geography and directs the Center for Indigenous Research and Science at KU, said the Lawrence boosters who carried the rock to town knew they were carrying something important to the Kanza people.
“They took it and they reclaimed it,” he said. “And now the dead people and the community leaders said, ‘You know what? We should return this and we should apologize. “
The city returned it last year, with an official apology for taking it in the first place. But Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe weighs at least 23 tons, maybe closer to 30. Moving it will be difficult.
But Johnson said the timing was right. A national discussion about the significance of ancient symbols and monuments fueled by racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd is energizing efforts to return the rock.
“We’ve started to see this national and international movement around monuments and rethinking monuments,” Johnson said.
The Mellon Foundation is providing $5 million to relocate Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe. The question is where.
Recently, a few Kaw chiefs wandered around the property the tribe owns just southeast of Council Grove, Kansas, looking for a place for the stone.
“We’re in the heart of the Flint Hills. And it’s near the site of our last villages in Kansas,” said tribesman Pauline Sharp.
It stood in Allegawaho Park, the site of the tribe’s last reservation in Kansas, land the tribe purchased about 20 years ago. A nearly 100-year-old native limestone obelisk on the nearby hill is a tribute to an unknown Kanza warrior. The tribe built a dance pavilion and installed some informative concrete slabs. Now he is looking for the right place for a spiritual treasure – Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe.
Sharp said countless generations of Kaw and other Indigenous peoples have sought Íⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe.
“It marked the location of a spiritual camp or access to, you know, other dimensions,” she said. “It was like a church.”
The tribe tries to decide whether to set it up in an easily accessible field or on top of a hill with majestic, majestic views. The site-selection work is bittersweet for Pepper Henry, as this bucolic location was his tribe’s last foothold in Kansas, and the place where he nearly disappeared.
“A lot of our clans were wiped out, mainly from cholera and diphtheria – and smallpox really took its toll – but also from starvation,” said Pepper Henry, standing by a stream that runs through the property.
He says the Kaw Nation has shrunk to only about 160 people. It has since rebounded to more than 3,700. And Pepper Henry said placing the tribe’s sacred rock in a tribal setting could help strengthen the bond between the Kanza people and the state of Kansas.
“We are still here,” he said. “We still exist. We are not extinct.”