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Nepaholla Dreams (Part Two of Four Parts)

By Ron Parks
Analysis | November 10, 2010

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - So we're back in Manhattan ready for another road trip. This time we head east on Highway 24, cross the Big Blue River, its Kanza name Man yinka tu hu u dje', and as we approach the sales barn on the right, we salute the site of the Kanza village of Igaman-sabe', Euro Americans called it the "Blue Earth Village," occupied by the entire tribe from about 1800 to 1830.

After leaving the Blue Earth village the Kanza split into at least three village bands, remaining fractured until their occupation of Kansas ended in 1873. A few miles east of Wamego we come to Vermilion Creek on which Hard Chief's village was located from about 1834 to 1845, the Kanza name for both the creek and this village is Tce xu'li'n.

Pushing further east Soldier Creek, known by the Kanza as Saba' sa'be, appears on our left, then we arrive in Topeka, where we go through the site of Fool Chief's village, occupied from 1831 to 1846. On the east edge of Topeka, we turn south on the Highway 4 cut-off, cross the Kansas River, known by the tribe as To-pike' Gaqa', turn left onto Highway 40, then another quick left brings us to Tecumseh.

The confluence of the Kansas River and Shunganunga Creek is nearby. Although a Kanza word, Shunganunga is not the Kanza name for this creek. They had two names for it, Man'ha zi'tan man and Cun mikase ulinbe, the latter meaning "Where Wolf Dwelt." Now we're close to the original site of the Big Red Rock, one of the two documented Kanza sacred sites, except the object of veneration, the rock, is no longer here.

The rock is pink, roughly cube-shaped, and about twice as tall as it is wide. It stands eleven feet high, has a circumference of about twenty feet and a diameter of seven, and weighs 25 tons. It's known as a glacial erratic, the name implying its itinerant origins, having traveled here from the eastern South Dakota area about a million years ago, pushed along by ice during a glacial period known as the Kansan, a time when ice penetrated as far south as the Wakarusa valley.

After the ice receded north, hundreds of thousands of these rocks, also known as pink or red quartzite, were left strewn over the northeast Kansas landscape. The rock is metamorphic and very hard, quartzite generally cannot be scratched by a knife or other sharp objects, a quality of some importance, as we shall see, to the Kanza.

During the two or three centuries the Kanza inhabited the river valley bearing their name, the rock was located on the south Kansas River bank just east of the mouth of Shunganunga Creek. How it became sacred to the tribe is not known, but the fact is the rock became an object of worship where the Kanza, according to historian George Morehouse, "regularly offered sacrificial prayers and offerings." Kanza chief Pahanle-gaqli drew a "prayer chart" for ethnologist James Owen Dorsey depicting 27 venerated entities to whom the Kanza offered prayer songs. Varying numbers of lines were drawn beneath each image as mnemonic devices identifying the number of songs to be addressed to each object.

Among these "minor deities" were four winds, the planet Venus, wolf, moon, buffalo bull, corn, and so forth. Number 11 on the chart, with five prayer marks beneath it, was the "The Big Red Rock Near Topeka," referred to by Morehouse as the "Prayer Rock." Morehouse, basing his words on the Dorsey material, offered the following prayer chant verse:

"O Wakanda! O Wakanda!
We see the big, red rock;
It has a hard body,
Like that of Wakanda!
May we continue like it--
Like this big, red rock!"

Pahanle-gaqli warned Dorsey that these songs are very sacred, never to be sung on ordinary occasions, or in a profane manner, lest the offender should be killed by the thunder-god. Wakanda, the entity to whom this prayer-petition is addressed, is difficult for our monotheistic-conditioned minds to grasp.

Ordinarily at this point we toss out the term pantheism, or perhaps animism, and think we have the subject covered. On one hand, according to Dorsey, Wakanda denotes superhuman beings or powers, and in that sense these 27 minor deities addressed in the prayer chart are all Wakandas. But on the other hand, Wakanda is the pervasive, all-encompassing power investing the universe, impossible to diminish into any visual representation. According to Thomas Say, who visited the Kanza at their Blue Earth Village in 1819, the Kanza "say that they have never seen Wakanda, so they cannot pretend to personify Him; but they have often heard Him speak in the thunder."

So what became of the Big Red Rock? In an article published in the Topeka State Journal, September 7, 1929, Topeka attorney A. A. Graham called attention to the rock, proposing that it be removed to the statehouse grounds because "Topeka is holy ground of the glacial drift," the rock being a striking representation of that geological phenomenon.

Meanwhile, 25 miles downriver, the city of Lawrence was preparing to celebrate its 75th year of existence. Like the quicker of two boys contesting a fumbled football, Lawrence swooped in and with the help of a powerful hoist courtesy of the Santa Fe Railway Company, scooped its heavy prize out of the river bank and hustled it back home. Here it was placed on edge atop a pedestal of rocks and cement in Robinson Park, located on the north end of Massachusetts Street, just south of the Highway 59 Kansas River bridge.

Set into the rock are bronze plates memorializing the men who in 1854 founded the city. Today the tiny park is wedged between two highway lanes, so if you wish to ruminate on the hardy pioneer forbearers who supplanted the Indians, be prepared to ingest the fruits of our triumphant civilization--incessant noise, fumes, and traffic of one of the busiest street intersections in Lawrence.


Kansas Indian Place Names, Map and Notes," James Owen Dorsey. Manuscript 389, Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives, Washington D.C. [Courtesy of Kaw Nation].

Kansas Geology, Rex Buchanan, editor. University Press of Kansas, 1984, p. 58.

Roadside Kansas, Rex C. Buchanan and James R. McCauley. University Press of Kansas, 1987, pp. 115-116, 160.

Kaw Valley Landscapes, James R. Shortridge. University Press of Kansas, 1977, p. 183.

"Religion of the Indians, Especially of the Kansa or Kaws," George P. Morehouse. 27th Biennial Report of the Kansas State Historical Society, pp. 40-46.

Mourning and War Customs of the Kansas, James Owen Dorsey. The American Naturalist, Vol. 19. No. 7, (July, 1885), p. 676.

"Folklore Offers Insights about Kanza Indians," Tonda Rush. Lawrence Journal-World, November 8, 1979.

A Study of Siouan Cults, James Owen Dorsey. Smithsonian Institution--Bureau of Ethnology, reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, pp. 366-367, 372.

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