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Editorial: New owners of Missouri's 'Picture Cave' ought to donate sacred site back to the Osage Nation
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Editorial: New owners of Missouri's 'Picture Cave' ought to donate sacred site back to the Osage Nation

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An auction last week in Missouri sold a sacred piece of the Osage Nation away from its citizens, disregarding tribal history and further chipping away at the cultural touchstones belonging to Indigenous people.

The new owners, who are non-Osage, ought to give the Picture Cave back to the tribal nation.

The cave is part of a 43-acre site located about 50 miles west of St. Louis. The Osage Nation attempted to buy the site, only to be outbid by an anonymous buyer who put up $2.2 million.

The Osage Nation released a statement calling the sale “truly heartbreaking.”

It’s more than heartbreaking. It’s an injustice.

The Picture Cave has about 290 glyphs, some estimated to be 1,000 years old. It is considered one of the largest and most detailed illustrations of Indigenous life in U.S.

The depictions show ancient life of Native Americans in their clothing, ceremonies and weapons. Some imagery has not been found at any other location.

This was a burial site and ritual space where mostly spiritual leaders or priests frequented, said the Osage Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Andrea Hunter.

The property has been with the previous owners since 1953, who used it as a hunting ground, she said. The tribal nation had been negotiating for months with the owners before the auction, with an original asking price of $1 million.

The brutal history of how the Osage Nation ended up in Pawhuska cannot be ignored in this land deal.

The Osage people migrated to the Missouri-Illinois area around 500 A.D. and stayed until 1825. That year, a treaty took their land and removed the tribal nation to a Kansas reservation.

Hardships didn’t end there.

The Osage Nation “Reign of Terror” murders took place between 1910 and 1930 in Oklahoma. Citizens were killed for their wealth obtained by the oil royalties on their land. Most killers were never arrested or tried.

One of the most high-profile murders was detailed in the David Grann book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” now being made into a film by director Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

That history is what makes the auction so galling. The Picture Cave is a link to the tribal nation’s spiritual and religious foundations.

The auction company says protections are in place to preserve the cave. That is not enough of a reassurance.

The cave belongs to the Osage Nation. Osage ancestors made those paintings and lived and died on that spot.

Giving back the cave isn’t complicated. It’s part of righting the sins of the past.

The day after the auction, the Colorado-based Native American Rights Fund returned 20 acres of ancestral lands in Missouri back to the Osage Nation. It took an eight-year court battle to do so.

We encourage the new owners to donate the cave to the Osage Nation; they know best how to honor their people.


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