"It is our ancestors who are buried there in that cave," said Andrea Hunter, tribal historic preservation officer for the Osage Nation.
A Missouri cave considered to be the most important rock art site in North America was sold at auction for $2.2 million this week. Picture Cave—as it's commonly known—features more than 290 prehistoric glyphs, or hieroglyphic symbols used to represent sounds or meanings, "making it the largest collection of indigenous people’s polychrome paintings in Missouri," states the auction website. The sale came as a huge blow for the Osage Nation, whose ancestors created much of the artwork in the cave. "It is our ancestors who are buried there in that cave," Andrea Hunter, tribal historic preservation officer for the Osage Nation, told CNN.
"It is our ancestors that created the images that are on the walls and conducted the rituals that took place. It is absolutely the most sacred site that we have. And it rightfully should be in our ownership," Hunter added. The cave was a sacred site for Indigenous people, where tribes performed ceremonies, made sense of the universe, and buried their dead. The paintings inside continue to offer clues about how those civilizations lived and what they believed, even a millennium later. "Considered to be one the most significant North American archeological sites, Picture Cave's importance has been described by scholars as rivaling that of Cahokia and Chaco Canyon. The quantity and complexity of the wall images, like the renowned depiction of Red Horn, are unmatched compared to other prehistoric sites," states the website of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the company that managed the auction.
Picture Cave and the 43 acres of land on which it sits had been owned by a St. Louis family since 1953. The family previously used the land mainly for hunting but began discussing the possibility of selling the site in recent years, said Bryan Laughlin, executive director of Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers. The Osage Nation knew they wanted to reclaim the land as soon as they learned their sacred site might soon be up for sale, he added.
For those wondering what happened to Missouri's Picture Cave today: A private bidder landed the property for $2.2 million. The Osage Nation calls the sale "heartbreaking." “Our ancestors lived in this area for 1300 years. This was our land.” https://t.co/1m6ifJku0x— Sarah Fenske (@sarahfenske) September 14, 2021
The Osage Nation, in conjunction with the Conservation Fund and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, engaged in months-long discussions with the family to come up with an arrangement that would allow the tribe to purchase the site directly. However, they were unable to agree on a price that worked for both parties. Meanwhile, the family had the site valued by real estate appraisers, Laughlin revealed. They estimated a valuation of $420,000 to $450,000 for the property and unhappy with the estimate, the family presented their situation to the auction house.
The auction house informed them that the site would sell for anywhere between $1 million and $3 million at auction. "To me, it was just mindboggling how they wouldn't be able to realize that the significance and the historical intrinsic value would make it so much greater than just the acreage times a certain number," Laughlin said. When it was announced earlier this year that Picture Cave would be put up for auction, the news was alarming for many who couldn't accept the notion of putting a price on a site with such historical and cultural significance to Indigenous people.
A 43-acre piece of land in Missouri that includes the subterranean masterpiece known as Picture Cave is up for auction. Some scholars described the cave as "the most important rock art site in North America” https://t.co/G22Nyi5cK9— KMOX St. Louis News (@kmoxnews) September 13, 2021
Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropologist who spent more than two decades researching the cave and wrote a book on its mysteries along with her husband James Duncan, called the sale "both wrong and unethical." "It really sends the wrong message -- that ancient sacred American Indian sites can be purchased for the 'right' amount of money, irregardless of their patrimony," she said. Laughlin described the new buyer—who has not been publicly identified—as cave conservationists who have worked to preserve other caves in the Midwest and around North America.
Dr. Hunter hopes that new owners work with Osage leaders to not only protect and preserve Picture Cave, but also allow members of the tribe to visit the scared site.— isabella grullón paz (@igrullonpaz) September 16, 2021
He said since the auction house had limited who could bid and because a Missouri law makes it a crime to damage a human burial site or profit off of cultural items from there, he's optimistic the site will continue to be taken care of. "Regarding time and unforeseen occurrence, I cannot say, but all indications thus far would be that the cave is going to be preserved very well," Laughlin added. The Osage Nation is now attempting to contact the buyer to ensure that the tribe's sacred site remains preserved and protected, said Hunter. "That's good that they have an interest in preserving it," she added. "But why should it be some cave conservationist in control?"