Big Red Rock

The rock as it stands today. Its name in the Kanza language is Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe (the Big Red Rock).

Lawrence city leaders are planning the return of Founders’ Rock to the Kanza Tribe. 

Ron Brave, who is a member of the Lakota Tribe, said the return of the rock holds significance for Kaw Nation and signifies a willingness to embrace Native issues instead of dismissing them like previous governments. 

“When this nation had that rock, when they came to live where they lived, that big rock attracted them. In the spiritual world, they connected to an entity through that rock,” said Brave at the Haskell Powwow Grounds in September. “There’s something they’re giving that rock and the rock is giving back to them. I think the connection with the rock, a lot of people don’t understand why that is.”

But before the rock is returned to Council Grove, University of Kansas geology professor Georgios Tsoflias and his team analyzed it to make sure it can be moved without further damage. 

The tribe, also known as Kaw Nation, formally requested the return of the rock in November 2020, and the City Commission voted 5-0 in favor of honoring their request, the Lawrence Journal World reported. The Kaw wish to move the rock to Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park in Council Grove. The park is being developed into an educational resource for the history of the Kanza people, the original inhabitants of Kansas.

“Our intent for the return of Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe [Big Red Rock] is to reclaim our role as its original stewards and to respectfully restore and renew its significance as a sacred item of prayer for our people,” Kaw Nation chairwoman Lynn Williams said. 

Curtis Kekahbah, a member of Kaw Nation who lives in Kansas City, Missouri, said he would at least like to see the history acknowledged. 

“I think when we look at history, there is a whole story behind the monument that should be recognized," he said. "I would like to see the park repurposed to include all of the information about the rock and where it came from, not just the history of those who took it from us."

“I think this is certainly something we are going to keep pushing forward on, and do all we can to right the wrongs of the past, and do it in the best way possible in collaboration with the Kaw Nation,” Mayor Brad Finkeldei said.

How the rock came to Lawrence

According to a project that researched the history behind the monument, the tribe used the rock as a sacred prayer relic for centuries before they were forced to move to Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1873. Indian Territory used to include parts of Kansas to Nebraska, but pressure from white settlers and betrayal by the federal government forced many Native American tribes to move, which left few to defend Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe.

In 1929, Topeka officials wanted to move the rock into the capital, but Lawrence beat them to it, moving the rock into what is today known as Robinson Park. 

Custodian Brave, who was first a student and has worked at Haskell Indian Nations University since 1980, said the rock could have served as a center for prayer, as a way for the Kaw people to celebrate their customs and faith. 

“It’s too bad there are people who think, ‘Well it’s just a rock. Let the pioneers have it.’ It’s not the facts. It’s more than that. This is our way. We’re trying to get our ways back, now we’re able to grab hold of them once again,” he said. “We need to tell our kids and young people about these things, whether it be a staff, some eagle feathers, a rock, a peak or a piece of land. Hopefully, as a community, it allows us to understand each other better.” 

Brave believes this project can, in a small way, atone for past mistakes.

“The community just has to understand, and a lot of them do, that we all have our different ways to connect to our creator," Brave said. "A lot of those ways were taken from us.”

Jared Nally, editor-in-chief at The Indian Leader and recent Haskell Indian Nations University graduate, believes the project to return the rock is an important step toward inclusivity to Indigenous cultures. 

“For Haskell, I think it is monumental to see a local government taking accountability to its Indigenous inhabitants,” Nally said. “I think demonstrating those actions and what it means to acknowledge Indigenous people and move forward with reconciliation, I think it’s an important model that students get.”  

Nally, a citizen of Miami Nation, said he hopes the cooperation between Kaw Nation and Lawrence will include the students and faculty at Haskell as well. 

“It’s important to understand why relics like the rock are held in such high regard. Often it is not the objects themselves, but knowing they have something of significance that came from a people,” he said. 

He said it is important for non-Native residents to understand how their pride affects their perceptions of the rock.  

“When we consider Lawrence citizens’ and KU students’ pride in being Jayhawks," Nally said. "There’s a lot of pride for that abolitionist movement, and that is what the monument is too. When you’re fixated on that pride, you don’t realize what that pride cost.” 

State of the rock

Professor Tsoflias, who conducted his research in May, used ground penetrating radar to find fractures within the rock. While the rock has some fractures, none are critical enough to threaten the rock’s removal, he said. 

He believes moving the rock is important to the community because it acknowledges the mistakes from the past. Originally from Greece, he sympathizes with the return because many Greek artifacts were taken to European museums years ago, and never repatriated to Greece.

“Monuments like this that have significance to people should be treated accordingly and be returned to their rightful owners. I think it’s the right thing to do,” Tsoflias said.

He believes this rock has origins from Canada, and through a geologic process that took thousands of years, it was pushed by glaciers to its natural resting place before it was taken in 1929. Tsoflias hadn’t been involved in a project like this before, but he was happy to offer his skills, he said. 

“Being a state university, I think any opportunity we have to contribute to our community and to the state is important. I’ve done different things like forensic investigations for example. Those kinds of things we can use our expertise to help make the community better.” 

Currently, the city plans to move forward on the project, but raising money has been an issue. At the moment, there is no acknowledgement of the Kanza history at Robinson Park. Only a plaque commemorating the founders of Lawrence is present, embedded in the rock itself.

Recommended for you