This was going to be a big year for Sarah Agaton Howes.
She built a headquarters/warehouse for her Fond du Lac-based business, Heart Berry. She purchased a trailer to haul her Ojibwe apparel to and from powwows and pop-ups. She teamed up with Duluth Pack, who manufactured a series of her quality leather bags — which was a big deal for her, personally and professionally.
“I grew up using Duluth Pack,” she said.
Agaton Howes recently removed the Duluth Pack-made bags from her website in response to Ivanka Trump’s visit on July 27. “I realized this is going to negatively affect my business,” she said of an affiliation with the Trump administration.
Duluth Pack did not respond to a News Tribune request for comment for this report.
Agaton Howes posted her decision to move away from their partnership in a video on Heart Berry’s Facebook page. In it, four Indigenous supporters stand behind Agaton Howes in her headquarters, as she speaks into the camera.
“As the only native company that collaborates with Duluth Pack, we have to live and work in line with our values and our community's values, as they have welcomed the Trump administration into their factory during a time when the Trump administration is deploying troops into our communities that are meant to halt peaceful protests aimed to end police brutality, this is just one of a myriad of policies that we strongly disagree with and that negatively impact our communities.”
The video has more than 31,500 views, and the response has been super positive with “very few trolls,” she said.
The inventory of more than 50 shell purses, backpacks and overnighters, worth $8,300, will be donated to Life House. The decision was one of grief and eventual release, she said: “It feels good putting some good in the universe.”
In a positive twist for the small company, Heart Berry sold more in two days than they had in six years. “I felt sick doing this. We followed our heart, and it really worked out,” she said.
“I think she made the right decision to step away,” said Mike Laverdure.
The DSGW architect and member of Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa has been collaborating with Agaton Howes on an in-construction Turtle Island water park project for the Sky Dancer Casino in Belcourt, North Dakota.
“That must have been very hard for her,” Laverdure said. Collaborating with Duluth Pack was an opportunity to increase her brand and profitability. As a business owner, that’s a hard call to make.
“I’m really proud of her and her stance,” he said.
* * *
Heart Berry, formerly the House of Howes, comes from the Ojibwe word for strawberry, “ode'imin,” and this idea about designs, the stories behind them and the common thread of working with your heart. “When I started this business, I wanted to have a business that was rooted in Anishinaabe values, caring for community and planet,” she said.
The business has evolved from her repertoire of moccasin-making and cultural arts classes to also designing contemporary Ojibwe apparel and custom graphic work.
It’s about being able to use your skills to support cultural art revitalization, she said.
“We, especially as Anishinaabe people, can take all our tools at our disposal and say, ‘This laptop is great, and so is making traditional art, and these things can come together and support each other in a way that we decide is important,’” she said.
Standing in her Cloquet headquarters, Agaton Howes talked about her designs — the Medicine Dress, the Good Seed, the Great Water — ranging in pictographs of jingle dress dancers, a canoe moving through wild rice, a silhouette of Lake Superior with medicines etched inside.
Her latest release, Protector, is a set of earrings inspired by the confidence and fortitude of the porcupine, a reminder of how to move through the pandemic, she said.
Agaton Howes didn’t grow up seeing her cultural images in media or on clothing. (She is omitting mainstream “Native-inspired” designs.) But she aims to change that.
“We want to see who we are and what we value and what our grandmas valued; it’s beautiful enough to be on something as simple as earrings or a bag.”
Indigenous medicines were outlawed, she said, so people would bead, draw and quill them into designs, so we would remember. When we look at these images over and over, like wild rice, we understand its importance. We want people to care about the wild rice and the water; and when we’re riceing, we’re healthy. All of that reinforces each other, she said.
“The work holds cultural knowledge and value, and people get to see our culture reflected every day,” added Hannah Smith of Duluth.
Smith originally came on to manage Heart Berry’s powwow pop-ups, but COVID-19 shifted her role to marketing and managing the company’s social media presence, a possible silver lining to a slower in-person season.
Working with Agaton Howes is different from past employers in the way she collaborates and problem-solves. “I appreciate how she works, how she mentors,” Smith said.
The two moved about each other, giggling and chatting, as they added deodorant, Kleenex, menstrual pads and more into a stream of shell purses bearing her company’s logo and meant for Life House.
“Being homeless, it’s super important to have a nice, sturdy bag,” Smith said.
On Tuesday, the pair dropped off the bags. “It was a huge gift for us and the young people we work with. I can’t even really put words to it,” said Jordon Johnson, executive director at Life House.
The nonprofit helps provide meals, housing, education, job training and mental health support for homeless and street youth ages 14-24. Last year, Life House saw more than 900 across their programs.
Agaton Howes and Johnson met in person for the first time this week. “She is energetic, committed to the community, committed to our future generations and supporting young people. “That was clear as day,” he said.