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20 Under 40: Native leader, artist takes inspiration and runs with it

Surrounded by items she has created, Sarah Agaton Howes of Cloquet, works on sewing a pair of baby moccasins at her home. (Clint Austin / / 5
Sarah Agaton Howes works on sewing a pair of baby moccasins at her home in Cloquet. (Clint Austin / / 5
A pair of beaded moccasins and leggings created by Sarah Agaton Howes of Cloquet. (Clint Austin / / 5
Sarah Agaton Howes 5 / 5

For Sarah Agaton Howes, happiness blossoms from inspiring others.

“I love watching people’s faces when they see what they’re capable off — in all realms of life,” she said.

Her roles as a community leader cross over many realms — from running group organizer to teacher to artist. But in all of her roles, she keeps the focus on others, which Ivy Vainio acknowledged.

“It’s never about Sarah Agaton Howes. It’s always about those around her — I think that’s a beautiful thing,” said Vainio, who nominated her for “20 Under 40.” The two have known each other since Agaton Howes was a high school student.

Agaton Howes, 33, began working as a community organizer in Duluth, offering homework help to children, then moved to the Twin Cities, where she took a job around youth training and combating racism. She moved back to the Northland “with a different mindset,” she said. “That I’m not limited. That I could create the kind of community around me that I wanted — a positive, healthy community for my family and for my kids.”

Once weighing 200 pounds, Agaton Howes embraced running and a healthy diet, losing 75 pounds in the process. But it became clear that a woman running on the Fond du Lac Reservation was unusual, she said. Drivers would stop to ask her if she needed a ride.

She wanted to change that.

So she created Kwe Pack, a running group for indigenous women to foster a healthy community, and battle diabetes, heart disease and obesity, diseases Agaton Howes called “an epidemic” among Native Americans.

“The power of Native women knowing that other Native women were running and building the sense that … being healthy could be normal for us,” she said.

“Now, she’s inspired all these other Native women to run with her,” Vainio said.

The group has grown to more than 25 members, and they regularly compete in trail races and ultra-marathons, which are longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon.

Agaton Howes not only takes joy in seeing women who were once apprehensive start running and complete their first long-distance races, but also challenging others to succeed goals beyond the running trails. In the classroom, she also teaches moccasin making and beadwork at community centers, language camps and museums.

Like running, she enjoys watching people get the hang of the difficult skill of moccasin making. It also connects them with their Native identity, she said.

Her goal?

“A moccasin maker in every family,” she said.

Many people used to know how to make the leather shoes, which are worn after birth, at death and during ceremonies, said Agaton Howes. But many generations ago, boarding schools, in an effort to force Native people to assimilate, worked to eliminate traditions like this.

“I feel like this is something I was gifted to learn, so I want to be able to give that to other people. I don’t want to hold this,” she said.

As an artist, Agaton Howes was noticed by Louie Gong, a Native artist who is based in Seattle. He mentored her and helped get her own business off the ground, House of Howes, which sells her designs on earrings, cell phone cases, bags and moccasins, among other items.

She hopes this can pave the way for more Native artists to form businesses, she said. It’s better than buying Native designs from non-Native companies that profit off the designs, she added.

“We have so many capable artists that do amazing work, and so it’s about helping them be as successful as possible,” Agaton Howes said.

With the different roles she has filled, her years of community service have taught her to take initiative.

“I saw that if you want something to exist and you think it should be there ... then you just do that, you don’t want to wait for someone else to do it. You just make it happen,” Agaton Howes said.

Whether it’s as a running companion, a teacher or a business person, Agaton Howes wants others to succeed. And it seems to be working.

“It’s almost monumental how she inspires others,” Vainio said.

Sarah Agaton Howes 

Age: 39

Occupation: Artist, teacher, organizer

What do you actually do? I am a beader and moccasin maker, and teach those arts in the community. I have my own business, House of Howes, as part of the Inspired Natives Project, creating a line of products such as T-shirts, earrings, phone cases and blankets out of my floral designs. I also organize an Indigenous Women’s Running group. I’m creating an Anishinaabe/Fond du Lac historical exhibit for the Fond du Lac Museum.

Years in your job: I’ve been beading and making moccasins for 15-18 years and teaching for about nine years. I teach at the treatment center, language camp, community centers and school. House of Howes is a new endeavor offshooting my other custom work for the past year. The running group has been growing strong for more than three years.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in criminology and American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota Duluth. Much of my artistic learning has happened on the community level as most cultural art learning has to happen.

Family: My amazing husband, Jeff, is a fellow runner and chemical dependency counselor. We have been married 13 years. We have two beautiful children: Rizal, 8, and Amihan, 5. My mother, Laurel Sanders, is a painter, muralist and set creator. My father, Edward Howes, was the first Anishinaabe K9 Deputy in Carlton County. My three brothers excel in their work from language revitalization, wild rice research, education equity and the arts.

Community Involvement: Community is at the center of my work. I have endeavored to create a community of moccasin makers. Over the past year I’ve taught more than 60 community members this cultural art. The running group has become a well known part of both the running and Native community. One of our running group’s goals is to normalize wellness and fitness. My work derives meaning from its connection to history and community. We thrive as a nation, a pack, a tribe. I believe we all move forward together.

What do you like most about the Northland? This is my ancestors’ homeland. Our culture and lifeways are based on this land, the seasons and the plants, and I am proud to be a part of it. Much of my family is here and my family can be immersed in our Anishinaabe culture here.  Not to mention it is beautiful here. Every time I am up the North Shore I am amazed how we can live somewhere so amazing.

Describe your favorite place in the Twin Ports? Either the Superior Hiking Trail or Park Point. That’s a tough choice. There is one spot between 27th Avenue West and 40th Avenue West on the trail where you run up through the woods and pop out on a ridge overlooking the woods, the lake and the city. It is magnificent. It also feels like a secret place. We are so blessed to have this right in the middle of the city.

What do you like to do with your free time? I spend most of my time with my two children. We love the beach, the parks such as Lester and Pinehurst, and roaming around Canal Park. We love to eat sushi and at Amazing Grace. Nothing beats breakfast outside on a patio and a walk on the sand. When I am without kids I run, primarily on trails. My “girls night” is a run through the woods with the pack. I love this time.

How can the Northland retain younger people? The new food and music scene is exciting and will continue to grow and draw people in. Affordable housing with a view is what makes Duluth’s hillside so great. The mountain biking, paddling and outdoors is why people love it here. Also, growing on-the-move and remote working opportunities for young people will make them want to live and build a life here.

How have social and business networking sites changed your life? I did organizing in a time when I had to call home phones and drive around looking for our youth leaders. Now, we can post a message and boom! Run organized. It’s a whole new world for bringing people together and creating discussion. For business it has revolutionized how to promote and advertise. I have also created a series of YouTube tutorials on Makazinikewin (moccasin making), and this is just one way how technology can support our traditional arts.

Who has been the most influential person in your life? My mother is the most patient, kind, ever-loving, Buddha-like person. I strive every day to be even close to the woman she is. My children have brought me in touch with the source of life in the universe and taught me why we work so hard, why it all matters and why you might wrestle a bear. My husband has taught me to be ever curious, ever changing and always growing.

What is your biggest accomplishment? Being able to give the gifts of our traditional arts has been amazing. I am grateful for this every day. Running ultra races after being obese most of my life, losing 75 pounds has changed my every moment. I feel free. Having a group of women I run, laugh and share with is the best community I’ve ever been a part of. And surviving the sleep deprivation of child rearing has toughened me up a bit.

What are you most passionate about? My children’s happiness, health and learning. Building health and wellness into our community. I am committed to learning, teaching and creating arts. Immersing and learning our culture. Creating and eating good food. Trails and running.

What goals have you set for the next 5 to 10 years? I plan to help my children grow into amazing adults. I will continue building House of Howes into a successful business. I want to support other Native artists. One crazy goal is to take my running up a notch to running a 50-mile Ultra Trail Race. We will continue building and growing our running group. And I will  continue to teach more of our people moccasin making. Mostly though, I plan to be open to the magnificent life changes that will surely come my way. One thing I have learned over the past 10 years is that I have no idea what life will bring. It will be difficult and beautiful and amazing for sure.