Mon. Dec 11th, 2023

Image courtesy of Minnesota United.

There’s no other way to say it. Sarah Agaton Howes, founder of Heart Berry, has etched her way into Minnesotan soccer history. But there’s more to the story than a matter of artistry as her and her business’ latest collaboration with the Dark Clouds and Wonderwall, a tifo for the game against Orlando City, concludes.

To talk about the collaborations, community building, and much more, Sota Soccer’s Dominic José Bisogno sat down with Howes for a discussion on all things Heart Berry, Minnesota United, and more.

Originally founding a small business named “House of Howes”, Howes later became part of the Inspired Native Project created by Louie Gong and Eighth Generation, which is now considered by many to be the biggest Native brand in North America. The experience eventually helped inspire Howes to transform House of Howes into Heart Berry, which is based on the Fond du Lac Reservation. With the transition came new projects, exposure, and goals.

That transition would eventually see Howes, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, become involved with Minnesota United and the Wonderwall, but the sport of soccer was one that came to her in adult life, in large part due to her children.

“I have a 16 year old who’s a year-round soccer player. He plays for Cloquet’s soccer team. So, I’m a soccer mom. I also started playing soccer when I was 40 in a women’s league in Duluth and we had like, the first ever mostly Native women on a soccer team there. It was just really fun to be on a field with all of those other people of color playing soccer, it was just like the best experience.”

Howes’ son, Rizal Agaton Howes, played for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton varsity boys soccer team last season, helping the team to the Section 7AA title and a third place finish in the Class AA state tournament. Eventually, Howes became interested in Minnesota United, where she realized she was not alone in her newfound fandom.

“I started going to the Minnesota United games and I started seeing [Minnesota House of Representatives member Jaime Becker-Finn] would post pictures of herself at the game and I would message her saying, hey are you at the game, I’m at the game! She said, we should really do something with soccer, Heart Berry, raising money for somebody. I try to combine all the loves of my life into one thing. This is something I never see, Native art with soccer, combined together.”

That conversation was the first of many steps toward the tifo seen this April, but Howes’ collaborations with the Dark Clouds and greater Minnesota United community began well before 2023. She designed the first ever Ojibwe flag to be displayed in the Wonderwall last Fall. The flag displayed “Makadewaanakwad” in Ojibwemowin at the top, which translates to “it is a dark cloud” in English, and “We Are United” at the bottom, surrounding a design by Howes.

That flag was the follow-up to a fundraising project Howes had helped lead, designing the We Are United sweater. Sold via the Dark Clouds online store, all proceeds from the sweater’s sales went to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition (MIWSAC). The sales eventually raised $9,430. The sweatshirt remains on sale at the Dark Clouds store.

“Two years ago is when [Becker-Finn] and I first had this idea and she right away, you know, she’s a Dark Clouds member, so she was instantly like, we should do something with the Dark Clouds. I was just kind of getting to get to know how that all worked … That was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, where I was able to be a part of raising that much money for something. It was kind of shocking and it was really eye opening for me to see how the soccer community [supported us]. I live in northern Minnesota, it’s a different culture than the soccer community in the world, it’s very hockey, it can be right wing. I live on the reservation but I live next to a small, white town. So for me to see this huge number of sports fans supporting a Native organization, it was just really eye opening for me.”

When the time came to display the design, Howes says it was all about making the most of the unique opportunity to platform Native voices.

“I’m the kind of person that I always try to make a big deal out of everything, like I want Native people to be really visible everywhere and so I just invited Peggy Flanagan and Jaime Becker-Finn to the game, and I didn’t really have a plan. I was just like, okay let’s come and we’re going to get on the capo stand and we’re gonna get out there. Because, I think sometimes you just have to make yourselves really visible, Native people tend to be really invisible.”

Heart Berry’s work with the Dark Clouds and Wonderwall was on full display on April 15, 2023, when a tifo designed and in part constructed by Howes and her collaborators and family, was displayed at the start of the game against Orlando City. That match was also Native American Heritage Night and included a range of other events, from a dance and drum performance catered by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to Brian Yazzie of Gatherings Cafe featuring as a guest chef at Allianz Field.

“I had been kind of talking back and forth with the Dark Clouds, with the Wonderwall, and the team about how other teams in the NBA, NFL, NCAA all have Native heritage nights. This is a common practice. So, I felt it was really weird that we don’t have that here at Allianz. So this year was their first time hosting a Native American Heritage night… So, when the Wonderwall asked if I wanted to design a tifo, I was like oh hell yeah I want to design a tifo!”

The design from the tifo was then sold as a shirt at the Dark Clouds store. All proceeds are set to go to the Wakan Tipi Center. As for the tifo, and its message of “We are on Native Land”, Howes admitted that she was unsure if the club would be willing to allow it. The process eventually turned out well for all parties.

“We had to get approval from the team for what you want it to say, and I have to be honest, I did not think the team was going to go for it. Culturally, where we live, if you were to say that you’d get like, booed… So I was just like, well let’s see if they say yes. Maybe they’ll just say no, but they let us do it which was awesome… It was a really quick turn around, like weeks. So I designed it and worked with the Wonderwall. They use a facility called MSS in Saint Paul, it’s this huge arts place… They had lots of volunteers who came and helped paint it. I came down there with my kids, my nieces, my mom. We all painted the tifo.”

Howes was also awarded the L’Etoile Du Nord, the Star of the North award given to a community member that reflects the club’s values of “resilience, inclusivity, dedication, passion, teamwork and respect”, at halftime on April 15. She was accompanied by family along with Representative Jaime Becker-Finn, Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan and Minnesota House of Representatives member Alicia Kozlowski, all of whom are Ojibwe.

Howes went on to explain what the tifo meant for her personally, as well as what she hoped it could signify for others. She also explained further why Wakan Tipi was selected to be the receiver of the funds raised by the tifo’s corresponding shirt.

“It was, for me personally, a dream come true, and also for Native people to see ourselves acknowledged… I really want to normalize that narrative, that we’re just talking about history in an accurate manner,” Howes continued. “You know, land acknowledgements are really popular right now, but I think that we need to take that a step further. That’s fine, but what are we actually doing? So that’s why we’re doing a t-shirt with this and we’re raising money for Wakan Tipi, which is a Dakota organization just to be able to support their work and give them unrestricted funds to be able to do what they think is important because Allianz is on Dakota land. I love grand gestures and it was so fun to see that thing unfurl, but I always want to take another step. How are we utilizing soccer, utilizing Native art to support people who are doing important work on the ground… I want Native people to see ourselves in soccer, because it’s the world’s sport and I love that my son can watch soccer and see other men that look like him and see, look at all these brown guys that play soccer.”

Howes went on to explain that a key part of her process with all of these collaborations, and outside of her work within soccer, is finding the right way to both celebrate art and support important work.

“Our art is really beautiful and people can say, oh that’s really pretty, but that art is meant to tell stories and to be utilized in a way and remind us of things. So, I really try and use that and the platform to do this kind of work. That’s what’s really important to me, not just making stuff, but making stuff that makes work move.”

The Heart Berry founder noted that she has plenty of plans to continue this journey, even teasing that she’d love a chance to collaborate with the club on a future jersey.

“Hopefully I’ll get to design a jersey, that’s my ultimate life goal. I’m just putting that in the universe. Please Minnesota United, hire me to design a jersey so that Bongi can score goals with my jersey on.”

Returning to the tifo shown at the Orlando City game, Howes noted that she was surprised by the positive response it got during and after the game, noting she had prepared for a far worse reaction.

“I think at this point, the graphics have been shared more than anything else I’ve ever shared or designed, which tells me this is a really great moment for us to grab on to. For whatever reason, this community of people is prepared to support something that is a little bit on the edge,” she said. “This is something people are ready and interested in talking about and interested in being actual allies, because being an ally doesn’t mean that you get to decide as a non-Native person on how to be an ally. It means that we get to decide. So I’ve been really pleasantly surprised, because I had braced myself for anger.”

Howes explained the way her work was combining the worlds of Native art and soccer, something she thinks can benefit everyone involved.

“I love to see something unusual like this. I don’t think people think of soccer and Native art this way. And then, we’re all winning. I’m winning, the team’s winning, Wakan Tipi is winning. Everybody’s winning and there’s this way that we can do business in sports where everybody benefits. I think for me as a Native person, that’s a value that I hold, that we can all move together. We all matter, everyone’s well-being matters.”

She also noted the joy she felt for how her son had been able to benefit from the experience. He joined her on the pitch on gameday as she received the L’Etoile Du Nord, a moment she felt he could learn from.

“Just look around. This is how big your dreams should be, like your dreams should be so big, so mind blowing that nothing can limit what you could think is possible. You have to believe that you belong everywhere… I think for brown kids that’s a hard thing to believe, especially when you live in a really white conservative community.”

The Native American Heritage Night held by Minnesota United was part of a recent deal that saw Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Hinckley become Minnesota United’s official casino and entertainment partner. Grand Casino became the title sponsor of the brew hall at Allianz Field, while other projects were announced between Minnesota United, Grand Casino, and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, who operate Grand Casino. One notable project is Minnesota United’s agreement to construct a mini-soccer pitch for the Mille Lacs Band, similar to the ones the club built in Saint Paul.

On the note of the greater relationship soccer can have with Native communities, Howes noted she felt that soccer was a powerful platform for change, but also one that can help take things a step further than current norms.

“I look at soccer as being the sporting community the most invested in talking about, you know people talk about diversity, but I think we need to take it a step further and talk about how we are actively working to be anti-racist. How are we talking about stuff to take things another step further and supporting all kinds of initiatives. I think that’s where organizations like the Dark Clouds are really great. They believe whole-heartedly in doing that kind of work.”

Howes added that its key that everyone views this is a connection that all can benefit from, not just the Native community.

“I think it’s realizing that we have to find a place where we all can connect, where we all can realize we have mutual benefit. Native kids having an indoor stadium is good for everybody in that community that surrounds them is going to benefit. Grand Casino is a great example of that. They’re the biggest employer in their county, Native and non-native … Seeing that we can all do better together is really an Indigenous value and what’s good for us is good for everybody. Whether that’s the water or that’s economic opportunity.”

On a final note, Howes explained to Sota Soccer that she feels soccer has the ability to grow in Minnesota’s Native communities, but that that growth would be greatly helped by investment into facilities that make the game more accessible.

“I think having more soccer teams, having more indoor spaces for kids to play soccer up in northern Minnesota is going to be really important… Those kind of sports that are easy for kids to pick up and play in their yard, that’s why it’s the world’s sport and I think as Native kids see themselves reflected more in that, it will become more and more a part [of their lives] … I really want Native kids to see themselves connected to other people in the world.”

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