An interview with the Supernaw’s Legend Kugee
SKIATOOK, Okla. – If you’ve been around the powwow circuit for a while, the name Supernaw is probably familiar.
“Where did you find your hackles?”
“Where did you buy your beads?”
“Where did that broach come from?”
Supernaw’s is often the answer, and that identity has its roots deep in family tradition.
William Supernaw is the third man in his family to bear that name. The family joke is that there are “too many ‘Bills’ around here,” he said, laughing. Most people call him Kugee. The Osage Nation Congressman is also Quapaw and Caddo.
“I have probably more colors of 16-knot (16/0) Czechoslovakian beads than probably anyone else in the United States, I would guess,” he said, thoughtfully, as if carefully stating a fact rather than pitching.
The term “16-knot” refers to bead size, and 16-knot seed beads are extremely small.
Standing in Supernaw’s Oklahoma Indian Supply Store in downtown Skiatook, Kugee is surrounded by glass beads of all measurements and imaginable colors in small boxes lining shelves running the length of his sales floor back walls. Glass display cases filled with metal work pieces and finished beaded accessories border a tall stand for skins and broadcloth in the center of the room. What you find in Kugee’s store is 40 years of interest to carry on traditions of dance dress and ceremony.
Born in Hominy, Kugee grew up in Skiatook where his grandparents, William and Maude Supernaw, had a home – Maude Supernaw was an original Osage allottee. They opened that home to the community several times a year to powwow dancers. Like his siblings and cousins, Kugee started dancing as a child.
Powwows weren’t as popular among the Osage in those days, he said. They were beginning to catch on, and it wasn’t unusual for boys to hitchhike their way to dances all over the area.
He remembers one fancy dancer named Elmer Brown who danced with a bustle made of pheasant feathers with fluffs on the end. He painted his legs, wore wools on his ankles and danced bare-chested but for a medallion and broach. It’s a distant image from the way fancy dancers dress today – neon colors, sequins in vibrant colors and more. Mops, also worn around the ankle, were made of yarn, but they’ve even made way for wools from angora sheep or even tennis shoes.
“They’ll eventually have flashing lights on the bustles,” he said, laughing. “It’s just evolving, and it’s accepted today. I like the old ways.”
Some dancers, he has noticed lately, like the old ways, too, and have returned to the more “natural” look.
Sixty years ago, bustles were made out of “fluffs,” also known as marabou feathers, which are found in craft stores. While they’re commonplace in the regalia these days, hackles started coming into fashion after he saw a dancer named Rudy Newmoon at a powwow in Ponca City many, many years ago.
Hackles are plucked from roosters and were often used by fly fishermen. Their brilliance and shine made them popular for headdresses, too.
Whether the dance took the family to the next county or to Gallup, N.M., Kugee and his friends dressed their best.
“We thought then that we really had keen outfits, but you look at the pictures, and boy, they were scabby. Compared to today, I mean, there’s just no comparison,” he said. “Everybody’s getting glittery, rhinestones. Like the rhinestone cowboy, they’re rhinestone Indians now.”
From those smaller, more personable gatherings, however, Kugee decided to make it easier for dancers and crafts people to get the materials they needed.
Kugee Supernaw opened his first supply store in 1969 in a location down the street from his current location at 109 N. Broadway. With his own family in tow, which included three sons and a daughter, he traveled to powwows and reservations along the lower 48 states from California to Florida. If not for the schedule conflicts with his favorite local dances, he’d have gone north as well.
In his travels, he’s pondered much. He’s heard Mohawk Indians in New York sing songs he recognizes as Caddo bell dance songs. He’s seen the Navajos, best known for their weaving skills, take to the art of beadwork in a matter of decades.
In the mid 1980s, he opened stores in Tahlequah, Tulsa and Anadarko. The other locations have since closed, but Kugee believes he’s found the perfect place for his business. He has regular customers from every state without having to advertise much because of word-of-mouth accolades. He’s hoping to build a stronger presence on the Internet in the coming months as he reassesses the store’s inventory.
Some of that inventory includes original silverwork pieces made by his son, William Supernaw IV. Son, as everybody calls him, makes original work, rarely duplicating the broaches, medallions and jewelry pieces he creates.
Son is already familiar with the seasons of the family business. From April to June, people come in to ready for the local Osage dances. Through the summer, the powwow crowd flocks in for supplies as they travel from all around the state and beyond to become dance champions. Around September, there is a pause just before the Christmas season brings in customers shopping for jewelry to give as gifts.
Son was a dancer at 18-months-old, encouraged by all his elders, especially his grandparents. He was a fancy dancer for a time, too, until his Osage clothes made him a more traditional dancer.
The family has also kept up the ritual Osage Elonska dances, Elonska interpreted as “playground of the eldest or firstborn son.”
Back in the 1930s, participation for these dances began to dwindle, but some families kept them going. It was part of life then as it is now.
“I think the important thing … is for people to realize that when they go to an Osage dance or even powwows, I think a lot of people have in their mind that they’re watching a reenactment or watching what used to be, but I don’t think they realize that they’re watching what is now, what the culture has evolved into,” Kugee said. “It’s not a bunch of people reenacting a Civil War battle. It’s the Indian way now. That’s what is and what is alive in our living culture. I think a lot of non-Indians don’t understand that.”
For 23 years, Judy Duty has worked at Supernaw’s. She doesn’t plan to retire.
“We have awesome customers. I mean, I make friends from everywhere,” she said.
With the shop in operation, Kugee also continues his public life. He is serving his second term as an Osage Nation Congressman, an elected at-large position, but he has also served on the Skiatook Jaycees, as Skiatook town treasurer and as the democratic chairman of Osage County.
As a tribal congressman, “our real task is service to the people, but in order to do that, we’ve got to have economic development. That’s the period we’re in right now. We’re trying to develop our economy and right now, gaming is our main source of revenue just like it is for all tribes. But we realize that may not last forever. We’ve got to diversify into other businesses,” Kugee said.
As in the communal effort that goes in to making the Elonska dances a success, working for the good of the entire tribe is a timeless value.
“We have to walk in two worlds at the same time,” he said.