There’s often a strawberry in the striking floral designs that Sarah Agaton Howes creates.
For the Anishinaabe entrepreneur, teacher and community organizer, the little red berry is a signature of sorts, a symbol of how she tries to live her life.
“It’s cute, but it has a story, you know?” said Howes, a member of the Fond du Lac Nation. “The strawberry was always this common thread throughout my work, because the word in Ojibwe for strawberry is ode’imin — ‘ode’ is your heart, and ‘min’ is a berry. We have all these stories about leading your heart way, living your heart way.”
Howes, who designs blankets, jewelry and phone cases, named her online business after the humble fruit, calling it Heart Berry.
These days, however, her reach isn’t so humble.
Her wool blankets are bestsellers for a national, Native-owned company, Eighth Generation. This fall, she published a book of moccasin patterns and had a literary essay included in a University of Minnesota Press collection. She founded a running group for indigenous women. And whenever Minnesota Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan is facing a particularly tough day at work, she makes sure to wear a pair of “power earrings” designed by Howes.
“She brings her whole self and her whole heart into everything she does,” said Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation and longtime friend of Howes. “So it’s been fun to watch her incredible growth and development. She is, I think, for so many of us an inspiration.”
More than pretty flowers
Howes is one of six Native arts entrepreneurs selected to take part in a national project called “Inspired Natives,” a business initiative that also aims to counter cultural appropriation by non-Native companies that sell “Native-inspired” goods.
It was created by Eighth Generation founder and CEO, Louie Gong, a Nooksack artist who got his start selling custom-designed shoes that he made in his Washington state living room.
The project gives Howes and other Native artists across the country training in product design and e-commerce, and then manufactures the goods they make. Howes sells her products through her own Heart Berry site as well as in Eighth Generation’s Seattle storefront and online store.
“In Sarah, I saw a community-engaged artist with a tremendous work ethic who just needed some access to capital,” said Gong. “And most importantly, access to information that does not exist in our communities — information on how to make a living from your cultural art beyond the one-off pieces.”
Howes, who began learning cultural arts from her family and community as a teen, designs in the tradition of Ojibwe floral motifs, highlighting important medicines and foods and telling modern-day stories of renewal.
“I live here in Fond du Lac in northern Minnesota, and we have a lot of hardship,” she said. “Here we have a lot of addiction, depression, suicide, every epidemic, right? You name it, we’ve got it. But the flip side of that, and the world that I operate in, the community that I work within and try to build, is people who are doing language revitalization and reseeding the wild rice bed, and runners — all these incredible Anishinaabe people that I see doing amazing things all the time. Sometimes that story does not get told.”
So Howes tries to tell those stories in her designs, through wild rice stalks and strawberries. At the center of her red- and camel-colored “Renewal” blanket is a dogwood flower, which is used to make traditional tobacco for prayer.
“The idea is that at the center of your work should be your thoughtfulness, or your prayer. I get to take these plants, these pretty flowers, and it becomes a device for us to reinforce our values. And to remind ourselves of where we’re going and where we came from,” she said.
Her work is for non-Native people, too, she said, an issue she addresses frankly in her website’s FAQs.
“I’m not making anything that’s ceremonial that would not be OK for everyone to have,” she explained. “I say that my work is Ojibwe contemporary art for all.”
Embedded in her designs are teachings that can apply to everyone, she said.
“Sometimes we think, as indigenous people, that our values don’t apply to everyone. But what’s good for us is good for everybody,” she said. “People love Native art, all over, and it’s often been non-Native companies that profit from our art. So this is this great chance to be like, ‘Hey, here’s this Native art, and a Native business that’s producing that.’ ”
A success story
Before Gong reached out to her five years ago, Howes was a stay-at-home mom of two who made custom moccasins and jewelry in her spare time, setting aside a spot on the table for her beadwork. After experiencing the stillbirth of her first child in 2005, she found solace in the running group she founded and in her ancestral traditions.
An essay she wrote about her loss was selected for the recent University of Minnesota Press release “What God Is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color.”
The first product she created for the “Inspired Native” project was a pair of wooden earrings featuring her signature strawberry. Her design was then machine-cut from wood and assembled in Gong’s Seattle studio. Now, she’s selling 20 different items through Eighth Generation, which Gong recently sold to the Snoqualmie Tribe, staying on as CEO.
“At the time I don’t really think I thought how far it would go,” Howes said. “I didn’t really have a lot of models for successful Native businesses. So I was like, ‘We’ll make these earrings and then I’ll just go on with doing what I’ve been doing all this time, hustling earrings in parking lots with people and struggling to get by.’ ”
Now, her days are very different, even though she still manages to fit in a weekly long run with her Kwe Pack.
“Things have grown so much that, like, this is my real job,” said Howes, who has hired two part-time employees for her growing business.
She continues to make beaded moccasins, and secured a Minnesota Historical Society residency to research and write her book on moccasin patterns, “Nookomis Obagijigan (Grandmother’s Gift),” which was released this fall.
When they first began collaborating on a line of wool blankets, Howes told Gong a story that he loves to retell.
“When she received her first shipment of blankets to the reservation, it came in a semi truck. And it was the first time for any reason that a semi truck had come down that reservation road,” he said.
“So all her neighbors, you know, her aunties and her cousins, grab their lawn chairs and prop them up outside the truck to watch what was going on, and she was able to take one of her blankets and give it to an elder for the very first quality control. For me, the idea of helping to embed these kind of success stories in Native communities is the highest outcome for our work.”