Join us for a conversation with Sarah Agaton Howes as she shares stories about resilience, heartache and perseverance — and how these experiences influenced her life journey. She also shares her strategies to fuel Indigenous entrepreneurship, and much more, on the latest episode of Indigenized Connections On Air.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Sarah Agaton Howes
- Visit the websites for Heart Berry and Eighth Generation to learn more and shop online.
- Go to Northland SBDC-Minnesota and Entrepreneur Fund to view and utilize resources for entrepreneurial support and growth opportunities.
- View a YouTube video on the KwePack and learn more about their journey and impact.
- View the Heart Berry visit with Oprah Winfrey.
- Dive more into leadership and civic engagement through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jay Schlender: Welcome to Indigenized Connections on Air, a podcast brought to you by The University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of leadership and civic engagement, and also by the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota. I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American Indian leadership and the civic engagement educator. My guest today is from the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe. Please welcome Sarah Agaton Howes to the podcast.
Sarah Agaton Howes: Oh, Boozhoo! Sarah Agaton Howes (says Ojibwe name and describes herself in Ojibwe language.) Thanks for having me here. My English name is Sarah Agaton Howes and I am Eagle Clan from Fond du Lac and I live in the village of Sawyer and work for Heart Berry, I should say I am the CEO of Heart Berry. I should stop saying I worked for Heart Berry because I guess it works for me.
Jay Schlender: You’re so humble, you’re so humble …
Sarah Agaton Howes: It makes it sound like someone else is in charge. Maybe I like to think that, but, so like I said, I'm the CEO at Heart Berry, which is an Ojibwe lifestyle brand, and I also am an organizer and runner with Kwe Pack, which is an indigenous women’s running and wellness group.
And let's see, how did I get started? I started as an artist just doing one-off work, so custom, like beadwork mocs [mocassins]. I was like, the girl walking around with the cardboard selling earrings out of aggies making regalia for people, and it really grew really quickly beyond what I could handle, and I just realized that what our community really wanted was really to not only to represent our art and see our art everywhere, but also to be able to create that themselves, and so I've just worked over the last, really in the last seven to 10 years on really teaching and building those tools, but then in the last seven years on creating design that represents our stories as Ojibwe people and just everyday everything you have around you every day from blankets, earrings, clothing, and also now do a lot of custom art and murals and public art. Yeah, that's great.
And so it's grown dramatically in the last seven years from me selling my earrings to running a business with employees, but...that's great. So I guess, yeah, that's the question.
Jay Schlender: So you initially started out as the House of Howes, right, where did all that all begin?
Sarah Agaton Howes: Well, I was a stay-at-home mom for nine years, and so when people would always ask me, what are you doing with yourself? And I think it's such a really strange question to ask someone who's raising their children what they're doing with their time, like just trying to raise these kind, caring, responsible people, and also I'd always say, “Well, I work at House of Howes” because I always joke around that my kids or these two little dictators and they would just boss me around and I just worked for them, and so I always say I would work at House of Howes, so then when I started selling my art, I just kind of kept that strain in my work, and then I rebranded, let's see... now would be about two years ago. Well, Covid is a weird year, so maybe it was three now, because it feels like two.
Because what started at House of Howes was still a lot of that custom work, and the more that I grew as a business, it became more about the idea of what we were doing as opposed to just about my own art available, like, “Do you like Sarah or not?” It’s kind of what I wanted to get away from.
But then really there was this common thread throughout all of the work that I was doing, which was the strawberry when ode’imin is the Heart Berry, and there was this common thread, not only in the artwork, but also in the kind of work that I want to be doing and the kind of work, whether that's in the community or with running or whatever it is, that the idea of the heart and that hard work was really what I was, so that's how I ended up rebranding as Heart Berry. So I had to learn how to do that. I had to learn how to re-brand.
Jay Schlender: What are some of those steps as far as rebranding?
Sarah Agaton Howes: It is really scary, because I didn't grow up knowing how to run a business, I don’t have a business degree or any of those kind of things, so this is all stuff I learned in real time as I'm going, and so there's all kinds of things about your own domains and you have your tax ID numbers and you have to change that stuff over, but the cool thing about it, there's lots of really great resources and people who could help you with this stuff, like the small business development people are really great, and so I think I only reached out and found people who could help me learn how to do it. But something that I learned in this process that I thought was really relevant and interesting, and I think especially for native entrepreneurs, is that it's really important for people to be able to spell and easily find your business.
So when I would say I'm House of Howes, people would go, “How do you spell that? And I think that that's really problematic with search engine stuff and the people using Google, people need to be able to just find you.
So now I can say Heart Berry, and they go, “Oh, heart berry.” No problem, but it still has all that story and that Ojibwe context. I feel like I'm still being true to myself in my vision, and there's a whole bunch behind that idea of a Heart Berry, but it's still very easy for people to find It's really relatable. So I learned a lot in that process of branding and rebranding about what makes business work, because I just didn't know. And so I think, definitely make your business easy to spell is my advice. I think we really want to use Ojibwe words? I think a lot of us really want to do that. I really wanted to have that context in there, and I thought about how can I use that, how can I have that be this Ojibwe context, but it'd still be easy, and I was like, okay, Heartberry, boom, there you go!
Jay Schlender: With some of your changes from House of Howes to Heart Berry, where has your journey as a tribal entrepreneur taking you? And you had the opportunity to get some national exposure for some of your work, and we can get into the Kwe Pack stuff later, but I've heard you've had some interesting meeting encounter with some famous people.
Sarah Agaton Howes: Who did I meet that was famous?
Jay Schlender: Oh, oh my God, you can't say that? Because when Oprah listens to this podcast, she's going to be so disappointed that you were ...
Sarah Agaton Howes: I think that the Oprah thing is still out-of-body for me, be like oh my gosh, that’s true, that DID happen! It just like ... So mind blowing. Crazy. So I had this phone call, it was like October of 2019. This woman said, “I work for Oprah's team, we’re coming on this tour and we would like to talk to you about coming and meeting with you,” and I'm like ... “First of all, you're probably fake and you’re a stalker." She gave me all this information, I had to look her up.
They interviewed me, they were super thorough, we had do background checks, it was all super top secret, and I really pushed them and I said, “I don't want you to come and meet me, want you to meet all these women that I run with... I want you to come and be a part of this community that I’m a part of" ... and I kept pushing them like, “This is what you need to come and see us, not me, but us.” And they do this whole top secret thing, I think Oprah loves to surprise people, so I knew she was coming, but they told me if anybody finds out about this, we'll pull the plug, like they were really strict, and so I'm just freaking out inside.
So I told everybody in the group, we're going to Oprah's event, they're giving us free tickets, this is so cool, and everybody was so excited and just so like, “Oh my gosh, I can't believe that they're doing this” and they're like ... I was like, “Oh, and then they want to take these pictures of us on this bridge running,” so we’ve got to like, to show up, and I was like psyched the whole day, you cannot be late, you have to wear these clothes, and everyone was like, Sarah, you are on a crazy level right now, and ... so we're there, we're taking all these pictures and all of a sudden this fancy SUV rolls up and I knew, and they do this thing where they say, “Look over here.”
So you're taking pictures looking … and then she comes around, Oprah comes around the side of it, and everybody just like completely lost their mind. And then I didn't know, should we touch her? Can we hug here? Does Oprah want to be touched? I don't know if she [does] … and we smudge with her and she was all about smudging, she was like, smudge, let's do it more.
She's like more, more. And we went and walked with her across the Saint Anthony Bridge in Minneapolis, and I was like, okay, be cool, be cool. Do you want to talk to Oprah about? You have about five minutes. What would you want to share with Oprah Winfrey? I was just trying to be genuine, and I just talked, she just held my arm like this. Just like an auntie. You know how they just grab your arm so stable. And I’m like, I’m holding Oprah Winfrey’s arm!
And she was just like you’d think she'd be like? She wasn't gushy.
She was very strong, very ethereal, very like, “I'm here on a mission, I know what I'm going to do.” And I just talked to her about what it's like in our tribal communities and the issues that we're facing, and some of the amazing things that are happening, and then we got to the end and they wanted me to bring one of my wool blankets to wrap her in, but she was talking to a news reporter at the end, and the producer kept like prompted me with her hands to do it, and I was like, “She's talking.” Do it, do it and I was like, “I'm not going to interrupt her, you don't interrupt your auntie while they’re talking.”
And I wrapped her in this blanket and I just told her, I said, “You know, we like to give blankets to people and give gifts to people who given to us, and Oprah is this huge icon figure, right? As far as wellness and health and honestly, being the only brown woman on television when we were going up, right? And she took the blanket and got into her SUV.
Then we went to her event, and she talked to us over and over again. They brought in all these girls from the rez through the VIP door, I'm like, walk the same ... it was just like ... crazy! That was definitely the most famous person I have ever met. But what she said, and I think that this is really the thing, she's like, they were doing this work, they didn't do this work for Oprah. We do all this because we know we need to ... because we know what community needs that we know we need it, we know our kids need it with running and you know this? Or you know what I mean? Healing work, because that's what we do. But we do this work because we need to, not to get recognition. But we do it because we think it's important. And that's how we ended up there, and I was just like, wild, who the heck would have ever thought?
A bunch of girls from the rez. Here we are.
Jay Schlender: Running with Oprah there! Been any residuals at all, have you seen an uptick on your sales or any additional? She ordered anything from you?
Sarah Agaton Howes: I feel like we should be on Oprah’s favorite things, right? But I'm thinking my blanket is somewhere in Oprah's life, like living. And I think that's a cool thing, being an artist is that you... I love to see my art like working and walking and moving around, when you’re a moccasin maker, that's what you like to see. Is it like a living? I think so my gosh, my blanket is somewhere living in Oprah's life, like maybe its in Hawaii at her estate. On the couch.
Jay Schlender: I heard that she has a house up here, like up around the here, up in the Hayward Lakes area, there's always been this long-standing rumor that there's a mansion around this undisclosed lake where Oprah lives. Maybe it's there. Who knows?
Sarah Agaton Howes: Yeah, it's possible. This was like so incredible … the whole ... these incredible things that you never, ever think are going to happen like ... and then the kind of dreams that I think that you never even let yourself imagine. We didn't look for that or seek that out, it was just like we did the work and they found us … just like, incredible, but I think there's all those kind of things that I've never would have in a million years have sought that out. Here we are.
Jay Schlender: So you mentioned, you talk about one of the things that inspires you is seeing that your work is living or you see it out there and it's part of people's lives, if you have a philosophy, as far as any business philosophy or what you think is there a certain philosophical way that shapes your work? In the way that you do business.
Sarah Agaton Howes: Yeah. A couple of things. One is like with our florals in particular, what I was told is that they are meant to remind us of foods and medicine, and so I try to use my designs to remind myself and to remind other people of whatever. So whatever that is, so I always try to put a lot of wild rice into my art because I think I want to remind us, so this really pivotal, an incredible part of our ecosystem. Right?
So I try to really use our art that's just beautiful on the surface, and everyone can look at and say, “That's really pretty,” but also to bring that story into it and to make that connection between all the other things that are happening. So there's all this other work that's happening right across Ojibwe Country as far as language revitalization and reseeding wild rice beds and protecting water, and all this other stuff is happening and bringing that into the art, so it can be surfaced, but it can also be a way to tell a story. Because if you look at those old Bandolier bags, old quillwork, that stuff is all plants.
Those are real things. And one of my mentors, said they put that there because they wouldn't let us talk about our medicine. So they put those plants there to remind you and remember what it looked like. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that gives me goosebumps to be looking at these Bandolier bags from 1870 and some grandma was like, this is what this plant looks like, I want you to remember this.
And so that's what I try to carry that forward of like, “I want you to remember how important this wild rice is, I want to remember how important these muskrat little paws are. I want you to remember that, and I have to remind myself to remember all that stuff too, because I can get as much wrapped up in this world as anybody else. So on an art level, but also on a business level, I try to really do my business in a way where everything sort of supports each other. So I can learn how to use a computer program that's going to make it easier for me to teach people how to make moccasins.
That's like this incredible confluence gift. That if I can use all these things to support each other, then that to me is a great role to play, and so I don't have to be... I can make a digital pattern and I can create a tutorial and then show somebody who's an Ojibwe who is living in Holland or something, this is how you make our moccasins, and then they can use that to do that. I think that's a really important part of what I think is my job in this life.
Jay Schlender: As a strong example of an Ojibwe woman who is an entrepreneur, I heard you say, you heard you say, but I read some of your stuff too, that kind of keyed this term, maybe it's not you, but I've seen it. You would use this term like “indigipreneurship.” Is that something that you coined yourself or is it just something in your hoop? Is that something that you thought of yourself?
Sarah Agaton Howes: I don't think that I thought of that... And probably there's no original ideas, everybody is just reusing, but I think when House of Howes, when I came up with that name, “indi-genious” was one of these ideas that I had for... I was trying to use as the name, and just that idea of always what we do, coming from our own place, and so that I think that we think of business and we think it has to be this colonial, very white way of doing things. When we can do business from our own cultural value system and we can decide where we want to go with this or that, we don't have to follow a strict set.
In my path as a businessperson who's not been like the MBA system of doing business. I think the idea of “indigipreneurship” is something that there are several companies and people that are doing that. I think Louie Gong is really a leader in that way of doing business in a way that.working with him, I could see that in the non-native world of doing business, you're competing. So I need to do better than you all the time, and I think where we have tension as Native people is we want everyone to move forward together...right?
Like we got to bring everybody with us to go forward, and so I think... But working with Lee, what he saw early was the better that we all did, the better he was going to do. He knew that we would all do better when we all did better. And that's a pow-wow story by the way, but that saying, I think that concept of “indigipreneurship” isn't the idea that I don't want to go forward alone, I want us all to move forward, and I don't have to compete against any other artist, any other business people. We can all build and go for it, and I think that value system is something I think that is what sets us apart and actually makes us special and different, and even our customers, the people who buy from you, they want to support that. You know, they're into that, and last year, yeah, it was in Covid, I had a collaboration with Duluth Pack, which you probably saw that whole thing go down and then Duluth Pack invited Ivanka Trump to their store. I was like, “What are you doing? I was like, I can't be associated with this!”
And I had all these bags, just thousands of dollars in the inventory of these bags, and so I was like, I'm just calling these in, and I'm pulling them and I pulled them all off. I donated them all to Life House, which is like a young people's outreach, a street outreach place. What was interesting, what happened after pulling that was we had a surge of sales and support after pulling those that I've ever had. I had a week unlike I've ever had after that, because I think people want to genuinely support that value system, they're like, “Yes, we want you to do business in line with who you are as a person.” So I was scared to do that. But it worked out and yeah, it was interesting and really scary. So that was my long answer.
Jay Schlender: Think that's probably... well, just like how you were saying about being genuine in the way you approach business, I think it's important that a podcast stays genuine too, so if you have mom getting after the kids for playing with the dog because she's trying to have an interview. Hey, it's all part of … who knows? This might be the most listened to podcast episode, yet. But anyway, I wanted to, as we close up like this your Heart Berry entrepreneurship side of this podcast, what would be some advice you would I share with aspiring Native people [who] are looking to get out? [They] have all this creativity, all this sense of innovation that they want to do, but maybe not necessarily know what to do with it or where to go, what would be some of your advice for them?
Sarah Agaton Howes: Oh my gosh, you know, I've learned so much and I constantly am learning all the time, so I think being willing to constantly learn, constantly adapt, constantly shift, and I think we're really good at that as Anishinaabe. Right, that's just a really great skillset that we have, is the ability to adapt, and so I think that's a really important part of that is let yourself learn while you're doing it, and really be authentic, bring your whole self to the table, you don't have to walk in these two separate worlds.
Just be your whole self. I think that that's really important. I think if you could find mentors, it's going to transform everything, and even if those mentors make you cry sometimes, I say find people who can support you, surround yourself with people who can shine white for you, because I think that's really important, and let yourself dream really big, ridiculous, super out there. Because I don't think I did that right on … I think it took a long time for me to say, “Oh, maybe this is really going here.” But I started in Heart Berry with my $800 Covell check.
Which was a big deal at that time. I said, “If I'm going to get this check. I wanted to mean something. What am I going to do with this?” And I just rolled that money over and over and over and over it again. So I didn't get to take that $800 and then go to the mall and buy some shoes, I had to just keep rolling that, rolling that, rolling that. You have to reinvest in yourself, you have to constantly learn all the time, whether that's YouTube tutorials, whatever it is, always be learning.
Learn how to do new things. Because I think what's tricky, weird, this is really transformed my business, is that I can do what usually we would pay a middle person to do, so a lot of times, a lot of tribes/organizations, they want custom work done. Usually we're paying a non-native graphic designer to do that work. So if you can find for yourself what you love and build a skill set around yourself that's unique, people are going to just gravitate towards you for that. So I think that that's a really important part that has really changed things for me, but I think really just being willing to learn and willing to watch a lot of YouTube tutorials, like, “Oh sure, I can try that. And don’t be too scared to try something, like, I don’t know, sure, I can try that.”
Whew. And a lot of businesspeople would say you should have a plan, you should have a … I don't usually, but that doesn't mean that I'm sure that's not the right way. I'm sure it's a trauma response not to plan, so probably planning is a good thing.
Jay Schlender: So as we transition over to, you mentioned earlier that you're a part of this wellness group, if you could just explain … I understand what Kwe Pack is, but maybe kind of talk about how that all started, maybe explain the name too for newbies on here, so that they can understand too.
Sarah Agaton Howes: So kwe means woman in Ojibwe, and Kwe Pack is honestly a pack of women, but what really started it was …
So in 2005, we had a daughter who passed away, and at that time I have always been significantly overweight and really unhealthy, but I think that after she passed away, I really was obviously in a really dark place and I wanted to just start getting out and moving myself and just, I wanted to lose what I call my grief weight. So I just wanted to just get back to where I was physically before that. I had had another son since then, I had this little baby who was starting to run around, and I wanted to be a healthy person for him.
And so I started just kind of walking, walk-shuffling. I didn't know Native runners or know people that did that. It was just so unusual. So strange to me. And so I remember going to my first 5K, my son was about one years old, and it was a reservation, like diabetes prevention, you know, like those kind of community 5Ks. And you got everybody from the treatment centers there, it's a whole bunch of kids were cheating, and then there's a couple of non-Native people who are actually going to do the 5K, they're running.
Well, I walk up and there's this other woman standing there, and I knew her as a young woman, but I didn't really know her very much, and she was wearing like real running clothes and stuff. I was like, whoa, that is like a real native woman who was a runner! And she was said to me, she said, “You should come do Grandma’s half [marathon] with me.” And I was like, “Why would I do that in what universe?”
So we did this 5k, it took me like 45 minutes, it was horrible. I was the last person that finished, but I remember running to the finish line and my son was sitting there in his stroller, and my husband, he was clapping his little hands, and I was like, “that's what I want from my life.” And I think you and I have talked about this, but I think the weird gift of that, of the grief and loss was that I wanted my life to … I wanted her life to mean something. I wanted my life to mean something, I wanted something from that loss to fill, and so it was like, “how do I build my life back?” And I think that running became this way to run towards my life. And running with the Kwe Pack was this way of building life around myself and really brought me back to life, and I didn't really think of the legacy of losing our daughter has helped me to build Kwe Pack to build my business.
All those things that happened really are strange results of that, or this way that everything became fuller, and so it's so weird, but all this time later. So it’s been 15 years now, and it's like I can see all the things that have came out of that and one of them is the Kwe Pack, and so I started connecting with Callie running with her, and we started saying like, “Oh, we're out in the woods, we feel so great as native women, and we can talk freely about all kinds of messed up stuff that we don't want to talk about in front of the all the other people, and we've never seen Native women group before of runners.”
And it just felt magical and perfect and wonderful, and most of us had never run races, and now most of us have done everything from 5K to 50K, 50 mile races. But perhaps most importantly for me, had really changed the narrative, I think, about what do Native people do, what do Native women do? How do our kids think about what we do and who do they think we are? And I think that it is no longer unusual to see Native runners here. I think it's pretty normal now, and I don't think anybody’s like, “Oh, they're running from the cops?” [Laughter]
Like, what are those people doing? I feel like that spending this incredible gift in this way that I've been able to take that hardship and turn it into something beautiful. And that's the thing about losing a kid is that you don't get to have anything beyond it, and so when you're able to create things beyond it, it makes them still there. And so I think that's been … And I'm talking to you! I really think that always for me, has been the lesson of this, is all I can control is my response, all I can control is what I view, and I'm just going to keep choosing life over and over again, I'm going to just keep choosing that path of life over and over, and I think running has been that for me, and I think for the women in the group too, everybody member would say, Oh, so much more than a running group. So much more than that. So, it's changed my life for sure, like, no question. Unbelievable.
Jay Schlender: I used to think, Well, heart attacks and strokes, and those things happen to older people. I was still a young guy. I'm still, I could still have a piece of cake or drink some soda, but then I'm sitting here thinking, I don't know, man, it's like I think I got to kind of get refocused here and just take advantage of whatever athleticism I have left. And I was talking to my son the other day, he said, you know what, dad, one of my dreams is just to play basketball with you in a skinnier body, and I was like, well, I just told them, I said miigwitch for framing it that way, you could have said something else.
Probably a little bit more brutally honest, and so that was kind of like what I was thinking about, because as we wrap things up here, I think your story, if I call it that, that started as far as pursuing those things that inspire you, whether it's your art and your passion for uplifting or taking care of your family, uplifting your community, bringing your community with you, but also about addressing those things in your life that have also impacted you, learn how to deal with your grief or continuing to deal with that or however, it is a process that I think it's all important. So I just want to just say that I appreciate your story. And so as we close up here today, we mentioned a little bit about your philosophy, but if you have any words of wisdom for listeners out there.
Sarah Agaton Howes: I feel funny … because you know what we mentioned about being young, we think we're still really young and we are not! We're like, Oh, we're those people, we are starting to be the people that people will look to for advice and information! So I don't feel wise at all, but I feel like I've learned a lot. So I guess that's my biggest advice to people is to seek out mentorship, so people to help you see people to be accountable to reconnect. It's so crazy because I think we are so afraid to try to reconnect because we think we're going to be rejected, and that's just really not been my experience at all.
The biggest roadblock to me being reconnected is me doing it. It is a fear of rejection, a fear of whatever. So whatever it is you're seeking, and most of the time, if you seek it out, someone's going to be like, oh, you want to know about this? This or this or you want to be a part of this or this? Those things are going to change your entire core when you actually see them all, so whatever it is, whether that's your ceremony life, your health, your dreams of your career, whatever it is, most likely if you see that out, it's going to be there but the biggest part is just getting over yourself, and I was speaking from my own experience of being afraid to seek things out, so I guess that's my advice and just find the things you really enjoy.
Find the things that you just wanted, you just lose yourself in and then you just feel like life is swirling around you, because that's probably the right thing to do, is whatever that thing is. But thank you for asking me to be a part of this and to talk to you today So as we were coming back in the world, it was like the Covid world opens up and as people are getting vaccinated and it feels like this more of time and this weird thing that we all lived through apart, so it's interesting to kind of come back and connect to people after all this, so thank you for asking me to.
Jay Schlender: Yeah, you're welcome. Miigwech to Sarah Agaton Howes for joining today's podcast. To learn more about Heart Berry and to view blog articles and to shop online, go to heartberry.com. For information about Eighth Generation, go to eighthgeneration.com, go to northlandsbdc.org and entrepreneurfund.org to view and utilize resources for entrepreneurial support and growth opportunities.
To view a video on the Kwe Pack and learn more about their journey and impact, go to the YouTube video, “How These Native American Women Found the Strength to Heal.”
To learn more about leadership and civic engagement go to extension.umn.edu/community-development/leadership-and-civic-engagement, where you will find more resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Make sure to follow the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network on Facebook at www.facebook.com/umn.indigenous.leadership.network/ to stay up-to-date on research and resources for tribal communities and tribal leadership. We hope that you will join us again for another episode of Indigenous Connections On Air.
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