Picture Cave, Missouri

Picture Cave, an immense Osage sacred rock art site in Missouri, was sold at auction on September 14, 2021. Efforts by the Osage Nation to negotiate and appeal to the private landowner, as well as the auction house, fell on deaf ears. The Osage Historic Preservation Office considers the sale another heart-wrenching chapter in the history of Osage sacred places appropriated and “owned” by people that do not comprehend their true significance. Sacred places like Picture Cave are invaluable and irreplaceable to the Osage people. The property containing Picture Cave was sold to an anonymous buyer who has not communicated with the Osage Nation despite many attempts at outreach.

Considered one of the most sacred and important links to the lifeways of Osage ancestors in Missouri, Picture Cave contains hundreds of pictographs dating from the Late Woodland and Mississippian periods of Osage history. The state of Missouri was the homelands of the Osage people for 1300 years, from A.D. 500 to 1825 when the United States government forcefully removed the Osage to a reservation in southern Kansas, then later to a reservation in Oklahoma. The lands surrounding Picture Cave contain the burials of thousands of Osage ancestors and some of the most sacred Osage locations. After that forced removal, the Osage people were cut off from their sacred sites and burials. Despite that, the Osage have resiliently endured over one hundred years of oppression and attempts at cultural annihilation.

The Osage elders of the Traditional Cultural Advisors Committee have stated their support in a letter to Osage Nation Congress, stating, “The Picture Cave archaeological site in Warren County Missouri, can be considered one of the most important cultural and sacred sites to the Osage People. The Picture Cave archaeological site, due to the number of unique pictographs (paintings) from the Late Woodlands and Mississippian period of history in Missouri are among the finest examples of pictograph (painting) rock art in North America and should be considered an irreplaceable archaeological treasure. The Picture Cave site pictographs, are unique in that they provide a visual record of the lifeways, religion, and ways of our ancestors. This archaeological site is one of the most important links to the lifeways of our Osage ancestors in the Missouri region.” Osage elders previously visited the sacred site and the Osage Nation Historic Preservation Office has long maintained close communication with researchers concerning the site.

On May 4, 2022, Picture Cave was selected from a national pool of nominations for inclusion on the annual 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Osage Nation hopes news of this recognition will encourage the new owner to provide access and to protect and respect this sacred place. “Picture Cave is an enduring link between the Osage people and the land they were forced to leave over two hundred years ago. The new owner of this sacred place has an opportunity to demonstrate respect for the Osage people’s historic and spiritual connection to Picture Cave by coming forward in the spirit of cooperation and working with the Tribe on a plan for preservation of the site.” stated Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

For more detailed information about Picture Cave and the ancestral Osage pictographs read “Picture Cave: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Mississippian Cosmos” edited by Carol Diaz-Granados, James R. Duncan and F. Kent Reilly, III, foreword by Patty Jo Watson, photographs of Picture Cave by Alan Cressler. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015.