Many Kansans don’t know the history of the “Big Red Rock” monument in Lawrence, Kansas, which currently sits in Robinson Park.
The first thing people should know is that the boulder’s actual name is In ́zhúje ́waxóbe, which means “sacred rock” in the language of the Kaw Nation.
The second thing people should know is that white settlers stole In ́zhúje ́waxóbe in 1929 and made it into a monument for the founders of Lawrence, erasing the Indigenous history of the boulder. Many Kansans also don’t know that Kansas State University sits on stolen Kaw Nation land. Thus, the story of Kansas State and of In ́zhúje ́waxóbe are connected.
Both acts are examples of settler colonialism — the active erasure of Indigenous people by colonizers. To fight back against settler colonialism, the Kaw Nation exercised their claim to In ́zhúje ́waxóbe by using rhetorical sovereignty.
Over the summer, with the help of Dr. Lisa Tatonetti, a professor in K-State’s English department, I researched media discourse surrounding In ́zhúje ́waxóbe and how newspapers— specifically the Lawrence Journal-World and the Topeka State Journal — contributed to settler colonialism, and how the Kaw Nation used rhetorical sovereignty to subvert settler colonialism. I conducted my research through the McNair Scholars Program, a federal TRIO program funded through the Department of Education.
When I started at K-State, I never imagined I would do all the things I have. I also never thought that someone studying journalism and English could conduct undergraduate research. Through McNair, I learned I could do that and more. McNair gives first-generation, income-limited, and minority students the opportunity to conducted undergraduate research and helps prepare those students for graduate school. Over eight weeks this summer, along with GRE prep and professional development with other scholars in the cohort, I spent countless hours digging through newspaper archives from the Lawrence Journal-World and the Topeka State Journal for any mention of In ́zhúje ́waxóbe. I also spent time learning about rhetorical sovereignty and settler colonialism and how these apply to In ́zhúje ́waxóbe.
I had to learn many theories and concepts to work on my research, like settler colonialism. According to Australian anthropologist and ethnographer Patrick Wolfe, settler colonialism follows the “logic of elimination,” which makes it different than other forms of colonialism. Wolfe says, “settler colonialism destroys to replace.” One way I understand and remember this is to think of the western genre of movies and books. In settler-driven books and movies, there is always a white cowboy or pioneer coming into an area and causing chaos. They also attempt to colonize the Indigenous people or end up murdering them. The movies are rarely from the Indigenous people’s point of view and the cowboy is usually the hero. The western genre attempts to erase what white settlers did to terrorize Indigenous people. Because of my interest in journalism as the former editor of the Kansas State Collegian, I decided to look at newspapers to see how they portrayed settler colonialism through the years, specifically the act of stealing In ́zhúje ́waxóbe and turning it into a monument for settlers.
In my research, I looked across articles from 1929 to 2021. One clear example of settler colonialism I found is in the first article published, written by A. A. Graham, a Topeka attorney, published in the Topeka State Journal on Sept. 7, 1929. In the article, Graham calls Topeka “holy ground” of the glacial drift that brought In ́zhúje ́waxóbe to Kansas. As such, Topeka should take the boulder from the banks of Shunganunga creek and turn it into a monument. Throughout the article, he focuses on the geology of the boulder. He also calls it a “pioneer,” which erases the Indigenous history of the boulder and glorifies it as a symbol of the white pioneers who removed the Kaw Nation from their lands.
When reading the 1929 articles, I began to wonder why Indigenous voices weren’t involved in the discussion in 1929 and how 2020 and 2021 news articles utilized Indigenous voices to counteract settler colonialism. There is an obvious difference in the way news articles discuss In ́zhúje ́waxóbe when Kaw Nation citizens are interviewed for articles. When I noticed the difference, I thought rhetorical sovereignty could be the answer.
Rhetorical sovereignty is the study of writings through an Indigenous lens. These aren’t always written by Indigenous people — sometimes it’s writing about Indigenous people. However, the key component is that Indigenous people control the meaning of the writing. Ojibwe and Dakota scholar Scott Lyons, who coined the term, says part of rhetorical sovereignty is the use Native of language as it decolonizes the mind and helps set the terms of debate in favor of Indigenous people. Rhetorical sovereignty is one way Indigenous people and nations fight against settler colonialism.
Through my research, one of the clearest uses of rhetorical sovereignty I found was by the Kaw Nation in a letter written by Kaw Nation Chairwoman Lynn Williams. In November 2020, Williams wrote a letter to the mayor of Lawrence formally asking for the return of In ́zhúje ́waxóbe. In the letter, she uses the formal name In ́zhúje ́waxóbe, which helps decolonize the mind and reinforce the Indigenous history of the boulder. She also uses the word “reclaim,” which reinforces the fact the Kaw Nation had the original claim to In ́zhúje ́waxóbe. Williams also uses the words “settler” and “cultural patrimony.” Settler has a different connotation than pioneer — settlers come to stay in an area, while pioneers are the first to go somewhere, paving the way for others. Scholar Lorenzo Veracini points that “There is a lopsided relationship between settlers and Indigenous people as the word ‘settler’ is characterized by permanence and ‘indigenous’ by fragility.” The Kaw Nation pushes back against this dynamic, using settler in a way that makes it seem fragile.
I also noticed that in a marked shift from earlier pieces, news articles from 1998 to the present mention the Kaw Nation and use quotes from Kaw Nation citizens. The presence of Kaw Nation voices in news articles contributes to rhetorical sovereignty as it helps set the terms of debate for the Kaw. After Williams wrote the letter to the mayor, the Lawrence Journal-World began to use the name In ́zhúje ́waxóbe, which is a huge step forward in decolonizing the mind. Both quoting Kaw citizens and using the formal name In ́zhúje ́waxóbe are examples of rhetorical sovereignty and how it can break down settler colonialism.
I want to end by sharing a website developed by Kaw scholar Charlee Huffman and Johnson County Community College professor Tai Edwards, called Between the Rock and A Hard Place. On the website, there is curriculum for teaching about the Kaw Nation and In ́zhúje ́waxóbe. I used this website for a large part of my research. I encourage everyone to visit the website and learn more about In ́zhúje ́waxóbe and the Kaw Nation. The U.S. public school system does not teach Indigenous history, nor does it acknowledge their presence today. Until it does, non-Native people need to educate themselves about U.S. history and learn how to fight against colonialist ideas. People can learn more at the Kaw Nation website and visit the Kaw Nation museum in Kaw City, Oklahoma.
Without support from the McNair staff and Dr. Tatonetti, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to conduct this research. Digging through newspaper archives seems nerdy, but I had a blast. Also, as someone who loves to write, learning new writing skills that come with research was interesting. I learned many things I can take to future classes at K-State and beyond. If you think you might be interested in research, I recommend reaching out to someone in your department and learning how to get involved. You might love it.
— Bailey Britton (BA ’22)