Missouri cave with 1,000-year-old Native artwork sells for more than $2 million to a private bidder

Missouri cave with 1,000-year-old Native artwork sells for more than $2 million to a private bidder
Image via Screengrab.

In a long, long-term effort to come close to repairing the abuse and disenfranchisement of Indigenous folks by white colonizers, movements to honor (if not return) Native land have gained some national prominence in recent years. Daily Kos has covered uplifting stories of tribes being able to purchase their stolen ancestral land back, for example, on an island off the coast of Maine. In terms of land ownership, that's an expensive, complicated, and murky process in itself, but the victories are still considerable wins.

As reported by the Associated Press, the Osage Nation hoped to regain control over an intricate two-cave system in Missouri, known as the Picture Cave. Picture Cave, which is located about 60 miles outside of St. Louis, holds Indigenous artwork that's more than 1,000 years old. The Osage Nation wanted to regain a part of their history and the work of their ancestors—only to have a private bidder, who wants to remain anonymous, purchase it instead for a cool $2.2 million at the auction on Tuesday, Sept. 14.

Osage Nation reportedly tried to block the sale, but it ultimately went forward. The cave system, plus more than 40 acres of land surrounding it, was sold by a family that had owned the area since the 1950s. In a statement, Osage Nation said they wanted to "protect and preserve" the historic site, stressing that their ancestors made this land home for more than 1,300 years. This area in particular housed studies, rituals, burials, and community bonding, like sharing oral histories.

"This was our land," the tribe's statement reads in part. "We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave." They describe the auction as "heartbreaking."

Carol Diaz-Granados, an anthropologist who has researched the cave for decades, told the Associated Press that auctioning off the cave was like "auctioning off the Sistine Chapel." The researcher, who has spent years exploring pictographs in the dark, difficult-to-access cave, said the sale "truly sends the wrong message."

In speaking to St. Louis Public Radio, Diaz-Granados and her husband, James Duncan, also a researcher of the cave whose specialty lies in oral history, argue that the area should have been entrusted to an organization that specializes in preservation. And, too, that the Osage Nation should have control over it.

"That's their sacred shrine," she said. "And it should go back to them."

In speaking about the artists who created the pictographs, Dunan said the process likely involved a "great deal of ritual," like prayers and singing. He stressed the "tremendous" amount of detail and the quality of the work, particularly the portraits. "Most of them are people—humans—but they're not of this world; they're supernaturals," he added.

You can get a sense of the space via a video the appraisers shared when advertising the sale.

Picture Cave - www.missouripicturecave.com www.youtube.com


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