ChangeMakers: Sarah Agaton Howes, preserving culture through craft

A woman wears a red blanket with floral designs around her shoulders.
Sarah Agaton Howes, 44, stands behind her home on the Fond du Lac Reservation. Agaton Howes is an artist whose designs are rooted in traditional Ojibwe floral beadwork designs. She is the founder of Heart Berry, an online store featuring her original artwork.
Jaida Grey Eagle for MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Sarah Agaton Howes, 44, is the artist and founder of Heart Berry, which is located on the Fond Du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota. 

Heart Berry is an online store featuring Agaton Howes’ original artworks. It was previously known as House of Howes, which the artist rebranded in 2019. Her designs are rooted in traditional Ojibwe floral beadwork designs. She describes Heart Berry as contemporary Ojibwe designs for all. 

Agaton Howes is inspired to keep making art because she views cultural art as a gift. When she wanted to learn how to make moccasins, everyone in the community was generous with their knowledge. She said she now feels like it’s her job within the community to teach and pass on what she knows. She has been teaching cultural art and moccasin-making workshops for 10 years and estimates she’s had 800 students. 

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She described the process of making moccasins within her community as an incredible moment. But for some, the process doesn’t start off easily.

“When people are making moccasins, they are struggling, poking themselves, bleeding on their moccasins [and] frustrated,” Agaton Howes said. 

People enter the workshops with all kinds of feelings, including loss, identity, and grief. But in their efforts to relearn those lost cultural artworks, they work through those emotions.

Sewing the moccasin pieces together is done inside out. The students then flip them right side out and finally see what they just created. 

“There in this moment is where you become your grandma,” the artist said. “That thing you thought was lost is not lost. You’re still that.” 

Agaton Howes added, “That is the best moment to be included in people's lives. Being at that heart of that connection.”

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan?

During this pandemic, I feel in some ways oddly that our community is more vulnerable but that we are more adept at handling it. In some ways, like health-wise, we’re more at risk. But as far as resilience and adapting to ever changing conditions, I feel like we’re really good at that. 

That is what is on my mind at this moment. It’s just being amazed at how resilient we are and tapping into that for myself. How can I adapt and thrive in this environment where it is really challenging and really complicated? I feel really grateful to have this whole sea of resilience to draw from. As an Indigenous person, I feel like we have a lot more of that to draw from. 

What figures have shaped you?

I have always been amazed and watched other Indigenous women who really thrived out of hardship. My grandmas went to boarding school so I always thought that the way that they thrived, and their laughter, and the way they loved their families in spite of never having that as little girls. I always looked at that as a way that we could surpass and create something that we never had as kids. I’ve always watched them and been so amazed at them.

My grandma wasn’t that super nice, gushy type of grandma. But as she got older she would always tell me all of these incredible stories of her time at boarding school. I would always think, “It’s so amazing she survived all of that and here I am with what seems like a relatively easy life compared to hers.” I always try to think, “If she can do that, then I can do so much more with what I have. If she can go through all of that and get to here.” 

I’m also really inspired by Frida Kahlo, I’m totally obsessed with her. She also was a mixed woman who really identified with the Indigenous part of herself. She also had a lot of suffering and thrived through that and created art, no matter what happened. She would be in bed for months on end and would still create art. 

I always held those types of women at the front of my mind when things were really hard. My grandma and Frida Kahlo. 

What is your vision for the future generations for Indigenous people in Minnesota?

I feel really strongly that we are a generation that is the product of so much survival. That survival that has happened to get us to this point and our job is to really take all of the lessons from that and to really thrive into the future. Our work is to reconnect. I’m 44 so people in my generation or younger are really in a space to want to reconnect to ceremonies or reconnect to all of those things that we thought were lost as young people. 

My hope for the future is that my kids just think all of this is just normal. They’re out there watching their dad butcher this deer and to them that is just normal. My hope is that this next generation will grow up and think that all of this is just normal. That ceremony is normal. Being proud of who you are is normal. Knowing your history is normal. Learning your language is normal. That they won’t even have to try because that is our job is to make that connection.

I just want it to be normal for them to be who they are. 

Where are we and what significance does this location have to you?

We took the portrait in the big white pines behind my house on the reservation. I thought about all of these places because I love being out in the woods, and I thought about all of these places I’ve been. The places that are underestimated the most are our own homes. As much as the outside world looks at reservation as a negative place, I think that we do that, too. 

When I look around here and I see these huge white pine trees that have been here for hundreds of years, they are just these really incredible trees. I know that when other people come here, they see the boarded up houses and the things that they see are so different. I think that we have to make that conscious effort to see the white pines. We have to see that and see how rich our communities are. And not just see the boarded up houses. And not just get stuck in that space because that is really easy to do. 

Also, I’m homeschooling my kids, and I’m working from here. It’s a pandemic and life is really weird right now. This is my whole life right here.