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Elders Series: Kugee Supernaw

On Jan. 21, the Osage News sat down with Supernaw in the back of his Skiatook store. Surrounded by broadcloth, colorful shirt material, fringes for shawls and tools for metalwork, Kugee Supernaw told us about his life.

At 82 years old, William “Kugee” Supernaw still works six days a week at the store he’s owned for 53 years, Supernaw’s Oklahoma Indian Supply.

The former Osage Nation Congressman, who served for 11 years, was an artist and merchant way before he ever thought about Osage politics. Odds are that if you’re Osage, or any other Native American tribe living in Oklahoma, you’ve been to “Supernaw’s.” Whether it was to buy something for your dance clothes or to find that special something for giveaway.

On Jan. 21, the Osage News sat down with Supernaw in the back of his Skiatook store. Surrounded by broadcloth, colorful shirt material, fringes for shawls and tools for metalwork, Kugee Supernaw told us about his life.

For most people who know Kugee, they know he likes to tease. When asked where he was born, he said with a straight face that he was born in a manger outside of Hominy. He only began to laugh after this reporter had written down his entire sentence. But seriously, he was born in April of 1939 in Skiatook. He’s lived in Skiatook all his life except for a short time when he was very young and his family lived in Hominy, but he doesn’t remember it.

Supernaw is both Osage and Quapaw and active in both cultures. His paternal great-grandfather was Ki-He-Kah-Steh, which translates to Tall Chief, but he was known by many names. He was also known as Wah-Zhe-Hun-Kah, which meant in Quapaw that he was a religious or a righteous man, a spiritual man. He was also known as Wah-Pe-Nah, which meant a man who knows many things. “When they interpreted his name to English, they gave him the name of Louis Angel,” Supernaw said. His great-grandmother had an Osage name but he’s not sure what it was.

His maternal great-grandfather was named John Supernaw and he was a Marshall in Skiatook. “He came down from Kansas, that’s where we got the Supernaw name, it’s a misspelled French name. So, we just spelled it like it sounded,” he said. 

His paternal grandparents are Maude Angel Supernaw and William “Bill” Supernaw, who was half Munsee. His parents were Bill and Irene Supernaw.

He’s married to Phyllis Warrington, who is full blood Creek, and they’ve been married for 35 years. He has three living children and one deceased son. He has 10 grandchildren.

When asked about his business, he said at one time he had four stores. The flagship in Skiatook, and stores in Anadarko, Tulsa and Tahlequah. He says with pride that he has only ever employed Native Americans. “I see myself as an Egalitarian, and I believe all people are created equal, I just seem to think that Indians are more equal than others. I just like to say it that way.”

Through his business, he has traveled extensively. Starting in the 1970s, for nearly 20 years, every year, he traveled to New Mexico, Arizona, Philadelphia, Mississippi and Florida. He would visit reservations, tribal headquarters, attend dances and powwows and stay months at a time.

“When I was gone, Judy Duty watched after things. She worked here for 35 years, she just retired. I could just leave and didn’t have to worry about anything,” he said.

His favorite reservation to visit was the Navajo Reservation.

“Because when I first started going out there, there was a lot of people who didn’t speak any English and they would have to have a younger interpreter and we’d trade. I got to know a lot of them at that time. I could price things in Navajo, but I was pretty limited and if it didn’t fit what I knew, sometimes I’d quote something way high or way low because I only knew a few numbers,” he said, then laughed. “I went out there about 10 years ago and nearly everyone could speak English.”

His favorite powwow to attend, after attending powwows and dances all around Indian Country, was Ki-He-Kah-Steh Powwow in Skiatook. He said before they built the dam in Skiatook, the powwow was held in the valley and it was one of the largest powwows around.

His Quapaw name is Ga.Neesh.E.Gah, which translates to Little Thunder. But he never used that name in his artwork because there was a well-established Cheyenne artist named Little Thunder and he didn’t want people to think he was copying him. He has always just used Kugee.

“Kugee is the name I have used all my life because at one time there was three Bill Supernaw’s in Skiatook and I only used Bill if I’d done something really stupid and thought maybe one of the others would get the blame for it,” he said laughing.

At Inlonshka, he dances with the Hominy District and he is Turtle clan from the Claremore band, according to his grandmother. On his Quapaw side, he is Snake clan.

ON: What are your fondest memories of your childhood?

KS: I guess it would be growing up here in Skiatook, all the kids that I knew. The town was really small, only had 1,400 population, even less when I was younger. It was really different then. When we got to be teenagers, lot of the boys I knew they hunted, we’d walk through town. It was only a mile from downtown Skiatook and you was in the country. We’d walk through downtown with a herd of dogs, and everyone had guns. You don’t ever see that anymore, especially 13-to-14-year-old boys. It was just a different time altogether. But we used to go hunting out west of Skiatook. There’s houses there now but there wasn’t then. We’d stay out and camp, sometimes 7 to 8 of us, we’d go camp out all night. Wasn’t anyone worried about us, I guess? (laughs) And it wasn’t just my family, it was all the other kids in Skiatook my age.

Everybody was armed too. (laughs)

A high school portrait of Kugee Supernaw. Courtesy Photo

ON: Who are your heroes?

KS: I guess it would be the same heroes that most Indians have, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Cochise, people like that who resisted European influences.

ON: What was the happiest time of your life?

KS: I think right now because I don’t have to do anything, but I get to do what I want to do. What I’m doing is what I want to do. All my kids, they all seem to be doing well and it looks to me like they’re sound enough and solid enough individuals that my grandkids are going to be alright in the future, so I don’t worry about them. So, I don’t have much to worry about, I don’t have to do anything, I don’t even have to get up in the morning, but I do. (laughs)

ON: Who, or what, did you love the most?

KS: In my childhood it was hunting, fishing, that sort of thing. What I’ve enjoyed more than anything is traveling the country, meeting different people, seeing different places, seeing different ways, different reservations. And working. I’ve always just kind of done what I want to do.

ON: What is your favorite thing to do for fun?

KS: Well, I like to go out to Gallup, N.M., and buy jewelry and things like that. Most of the trips I’ve made have been business trips. Phyllis and I went up to Niagara Falls within the last year, and I really enjoyed that. So, traveling.

ON: What is your favorite thing about being Osage?

KS: Well, I guess it’s participating in the Inlonshka and the Native American Church and being immersed in it enough to kind of know what it’s all about. I’ve often said, lot of people go to the dances and seem to think that they’re re-enacting the past, but what they’re looking at is what it is, today. It’s a living culture, it’s not a re-enactment. I know a lot of people who go to the dances who don’t seem to understand that.

Kugee Supernaw and his father Bill. Circa 1970s. Courtesy Photo

ON: What is something people don’t know about you?

KS: Well, what they don’t know about me they probably wouldn’t care about me anyway, but when we were growing up, we went out and hunted nearly every week. We trapped a lot of animals, sold their furs up in St. Louis, by mail.

Note: Osage News later found out he’s an Eagle Scout!

ON: What is your favorite Osage meal?

KS: Corn soup with a lot of salt. (laughs) If I had to live on one thing it would probably be that, with some frybread.

ON: What is your greatest regret?

KS: Most of my regrets have not been what I’ve done, but what I didn’t do. So many things, looking back. There’s so many things I could’ve done that would have changed … most of the things, opportunities I’ve missed have been in business, real estate. There was a farm out here that I could have bought, and the payment was $200 a month and I was afraid there would be a time I couldn’t come up with $200 and now, shoot. That land is probably worth hundreds of thousands of dollars now and there was never a time I couldn’t come up with the $200. Just, you know, opportunities missed.

ON: What is your greatest achievement?

KS: I guess surviving to this age. Looking back on some of the things I did when I was younger, it’s a wonder I’m still alive. (laughs) No, probably my children. I have a family and I’m pretty proud of them, most of them have done real well.

ON: What’s on your bucket list?

KS: There is one painting I would like to do, that’s on my bucket list and I hope to finish it before I die. Under the old arbor at Pawhuska, when the dance ground was square, there was a bleacher on the east side, and I was at the top. I sketched it out on plexiglass, and I had (my son) William, I had him stand at different parts of the dance ground so I could get the proper perspective of a man if he were looking at this two feet away. And I have it all sketched out. The thing that really interested me was when the women were coming toward you, the light would shine off those brooches, and if that was in your mind, that was the most impressive thing about it. Then they moved the bleacher back, the last bleachers were moved back 15-20 feet, so you’ll never get that view again, because it’s not there. Now they dance in a circle so big you have to have binoculars to see who’s on the other side. You’ve lost the intimacy; it doesn’t seem to have the same feeling. It’s altogether different and it probably never will be like that again. If I ever finish it, it will be a view a lot of people have seen, but they’ll never see it in the future. So, I think it will be important. I was going to call it “Osage Saturday Night.”

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Shannon Shaw Dutyhttps://osagenews.org
Shannon Shaw Duty is the editor of the Osage News. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a master's degree in Legal Studies, Indigenous Peoples Law from the OU College of Law. She served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) from 2013-2016 and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee from 2017-2020. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED). In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive the Elias Boudinot Free Press Award, NAJA’s highest honor. An Osage tribal member, she and her family are from the Grayhorse District. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and six children.
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