The Return of Stolen Land in Lawrence Kansas

My name is Joni Fornelli, great granddaughter of David G Unruh, who left Prussia to avoid being forced into the army, and arrived in central Kansas in 1874, one year after the Kanza people were removed in 1873. When David’s family arrived, they began to farm and soon built a church named Hoffnungsau (literally Hope Meadow).

I am the granddaughter of David and Marie Unruh, Mennonite farmers on the land that David G Unruh bought from the Railroad when those who had belonged with the land for centuries were forced to move to Oklahoma. I’m also the granddaughter of Delia and Clifford Carlson whose families left Sweden in 1868 when for 3 years in a row, the grain from all the fields filled only one single bushel basket. This is how I got here, to Kansas, the land of the Kanza Peoples.

Stories from my family never mentioned the “Kanza Indians.” Did my family know of their existence? In public education, I never heard of the Kanza Nation. They seem to have been erased from the land as well as from the memories of the settlers and descendants. It’s shocking how erasure of the Kanza took place, and yet those same white settlers stole their name for our state. Well, the same thing happened in Iowa too.

I hadn’t heard of the Kanza until I participated in a weekend training on Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery 5 or more years ago. There I met a woman named Pauline Sharp, a citizen of the Kaw Nation, who participated in the training too. I sensed a gracious presence with Pauline, full of possibilities for relational healing. She spoke of the pain associated with hearing the name of a bike race in Kansas that dishonored the Kanza. I became aware of the need for making changes toward right relations with the people of the land where I am living. I joined a collaborative group with Kaw citizen Charlee Huffman and other Indigenous leadership. That group organized to change the name of the gravel bike race, which thankfully did occur in 2020.

In the weekend training on Dismantling the Doctrine, I learned that Pope Nicholas V had declared that people who were not Christian were not human, and that the land could be “discovered” and taken by white colonizers. Although many tribes lived throughout Turtle Island, they were not recognized as people, so they could be killed and enslaved. By 1880, 95% of the original Indigenous Peoples were killed.

I felt horrified that the Catholic Pope had declared people as not human, which gave settlers the authority to take land that they “discovered.” The Catholic Church is now the largest private landowner in the world! The Doctrine of Discovery is the foundation of our legal system, rooted in structures that benefit white, Christian, male supremacy. This system needs to be dismantled, turning toward relational healing with the land and with the Indigenous people who belong here, directing our focus and energy.

In´zhúje´waxóbe, Sacred Prayer Rock of the Kanza

Examples of settler presumptions about land and “ownership” abound. Several years ago, I learned of the history of the Kanza’s Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe, Sacred Prayer Rock in Lawrence that was stolen in 1929 from the confluence of the Kaw River and Shunganunga Creek (in Tecumseh, just east of Topeka).

Settlers in Lawrence and Topeka had a race to commit the theft, and the Lawrence group were the ones to hoist the 24-ton red quartzite boulder onto a train in the middle of the night. They erected it in Lawrence, with a plaque honoring the founding fathers of Lawrence, who suffered hardship and death to establish the city. No mention was made, and not one name was listed, of the Kanza people who died of genocide at the hands of settlers.

As I reflect on the hope that my ancestors felt upon their arrival to Kansas and the direct impact of hopelessness inflicted on the Kanza people whose land I occupy, I feel a “response-ability” toward repair of the harm done to the Kanza people. I am grateful for Pauline Sharp and the way that she models grace and wisdom. Those of us who are fortunate to know her are touched in our hearts to listen and be open to what support we can demonstrate and what actions we can take toward repair.

Thankfully, Pauline Sharp and local artist David Lowenstein met and began to collaborate on the return of Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe to the Kanza. During their process, the Kaw Nation (aka the Kanza) formally requested the return of their Sacred Prayer Rock, which was granted in January of 2021 by the City of Lawrence and Douglas County, along with a letter of apology!

With the mechanism to return the Sacred Red Rock in motion, I saw the need to show up as part of a faith community with the intention to focus on how we return to the Kaw Nation what was stolen from them. The harm done in Kansas and throughout what is now called the United States is rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery.

I invited the faith community in Lawrence to sponsor bringing a play called We Own This Now (written by Alison Casella Brookins, a member of the Coalition, and performed by Ted and Company) to Lawrence, so that our community could be educated on the need to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. Nine faith communities in Lawrence, Topeka, and Manhattan collaborated on bringing the play to Lawrence in the fall of 2022. In June of 2023, five faith communities supported bringing the Loss of Turtle Island Exercise to Lawrence. These newly formed relationships helped us to unite our energy to collaborate with each other and to become educated, informed, and inspired toward restorative justice work.

With the imminent return of Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe to the Kaw Nation, we continued to invite the faith community into action, and many volunteered at the Ceremony of Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe, the Sacred Red Rock’s return to the Kanza people on August 29, 2023.

At the ceremony Kansas Governor Laura Kelly spoke about this return as the beginning of other steps that need to be taken. Lawrence Mayor Lisa Larson read the City and County’s apology to the Kanza people. Jim Pepper Henry, Vice-Chair of the Kaw Nation, acknowledged the significance of the return of Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe. He asked that continued action be taken to repair our relationships. He asked that the State of Kansas pay full scholarships to Kanza students and other Indigenous students who have histories connected to Kansas.

On the right: Jim Pepper Henry, Vice Chair of the Kaw Nation

The next morning, there was a private sacred ceremony that was attended solely by Kaw members while Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe was carefully lifted and placed onto the bed of a long flatbed truck. Doe Hoyer, organizer of the Coalition’s Repair Network, gathered a small group nearby, in prayer and song – a way of holding reverence and honoring the return of what settlers had stolen 95 years ago.

Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe smoothly journeyed on with the Kanza people where he will live at Allegawaho Park near Council Grove, Kansas. This area is where the final Kanza reservation land was located in 1873. That reservation was a dwindled 9 x 13 mile area, a far cry from the original 22 million acres where the Kanza had lived for hundreds of years, before settler invasion. The Mellon Foundation has provided a grant to support the building of a new structure for Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe to rest on, running water for restrooms, and a shelter for education on the culture and heritage of the Kanza people.

What impresses me is the way that Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe is held as truly sacred by the Kanza. As Kaw elder Curtis Kekahbah said, everything is related and everything is alive. The Sacred Red Rock has brought so many relationships of people together over the past several years, and continues to nourish the formation of new relationships as we learn about the road toward repair and the need to consider how we reinhabit this land together. The Kaw people must not be erased from Kansas any longer.

As Doe Hoyer, the Coalition organizer, was present and identified the Indigenous-led ask, we are honoring the request with our response as we invite the City of Lawrence and the State of Kansas to become repair communities through participation in Learning Circles which began October 25, 2023! Having Kanza students return to Kanza lands and receive their education would be one way to begin reversing the erasure of the Kanza on their lands.

It is a continuing journey for us to weave together healing relationships on Kanza land. Creating loving relationships with each other and finding ways to co-inhabit together on these lands is essential. Forming such a web of loving relationships is what I call “Love Looping.” As we tend this loving web, like a spider web which is so strong that it’s used to make bulletproof vests, we create a power that is stronger than fear – Love.

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Listen to Charlee Huffman, a member of the Kaw Nation, reflect on the importance of In´zhúje´waxóbe to the Kanza people.

Joni Fornelli is an occupational therapist and founder of The Lavender House, an inter-spiritual gathering place for renewal, celebration, and harmony.

Joni centers relational healing with the land ~ creating a beloving culture. An expression of this is weaving loving relationships together through sharing all income the Lavender House receives, with the Kanza Heritage Society and the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery. With this love looping people become aware of the work of repair happening, of which they are a part, in the web of the Spirit of Life.