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Osage Nation sees donation of 20 acres in Missouri after Picture Cave auction

The week of Sept. 13 brought both bad news and good news for the Osage Nation.

First came what Andrea Hunter of the Osage Nation described as a “devastating” sale at auction, that Tuesday, of sacred Picture Cave — a treasure trove of ancient pictographs located about 60 miles west of St. Louis in Warren County, Missouri.

Working in conjunction with the nonprofit Conservation Fund, the Osage Nation was among the bidders. But the property ultimately went to another, unnamed party.

“We were extremely hopeful that we would be successful, and it was truly heartbreaking, in the end, when another bidder simply ran the price up beyond what we were able to bid,” Hunter, the director of the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office, told St. Louis on the Air.

The tribe has been unable to find out who the new owner of the Picture Cave property is. Hunter described it as coming up against “a brick wall” in its attempts to identify the cave’s new owner.

But just one day after the Picture Cave auction came a different set of emotions for Hunter and the tribe’s leaders.

On Sept. 15, the Native American Rights Fund donated 20 acres of ancestral lands in a different part of Missouri to the Osage Nation. The organization had received the Lafayette County property through a bequest from the now-former owners, who hoped to see the acreage and its burial mounds preserved.

“That is so critically important,” Hunter said. “When we have our ancestors buried in lands that are far from us, it’s really critical that we have private citizens like this, that take the initiative and protect what’s out there and protect these burial mounds. So we’re very appreciative of this.”

Hunter and her crew traveled to the area in 2019 to survey parts of it — and were able to confirm that the mounds were indeed Osage ones.

“And there actually may be more mounds that are out there,” she added. “When that survey was conducted, there [was] a lot of current vegetation that was inhibiting the crew from really seeing clearly the full property. So we’ll be returning this fall, and surveying the rest of the property to see if there are additional mounds out there.”

After the initial survey, the next step was simple, said Don Ragona, NARF’s director of development and house counsel: for the nonprofit to transfer to the Osage Nation what’s now the Nelvada Dean Trust Property.

“There’s no age limit on the sanctity and the sacredness of a place or graves, and these things needed to be protected,” Ragona said. “And they needed to be in the hands of the people who knew best how to protect them.”

He and Hunter emphasized their hope for a better resolution in the case of Picture Cave.

“For it to be in private hands, to be exploited, and hopefully never destroyed, you know, for profit, I mean, I would like to see these folks step up and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to give it back to the tribe … because that’s who it belongs to,’” Ragona said. “At a minimum, it’s like, work some kind of arrangement out where the tribe has access, it can manage it, whatever. But the tribe needs to be involved in the caretaking of this land.”

Hunter said the Osage Nation welcomes the opportunity to be involved. She said the tribe is “not gonna give up” on the site.

“We’re gonna try our hardest to see if, somehow, we can get in contact with this person,” she said. “And we’ll need the public’s assistance in that, because it seems like, to date, we just haven’t had any luck. … Our door is wide open.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Evie Hemphill joined the St. Louis on the Air team in February 2018. After earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature in 2005, she started her career as a reporter for the Westminster Window in Colorado. Several years later she went on to pursue graduate work in creative writing at the University of Wyoming and moved to St. Louis upon earning an MFA in the spring of 2010. She worked as writer and editor for Washington University Libraries until 2014 and then spent several more years in public relations for the University of Missouri–St. Louis before making the shift to St. Louis Public Radio.