Bringing Inspired Natives to the Mainstream
February 27, 2020

Bringing Inspired Natives to the Mainstream

On a balmy -20 degree day in Minneapolis, Minn., Sarah Agaton Howes (Anishinaabe) stepped forward to wrap Oprah Winfrey in a “Renewal” blanket. Oprah had come to visit the KwePack, an Indigenous Women’s Running Group in Northern Minnesota. When they received an invitation to run during Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus tour, Sarah seized the opportunity to share her culture and her business by honoring someone who has inspired millions. The “Renewal” blanket was designed by Sarah and created as part of the Eighth Generation label.

Sarah, owner of contemporary Anishinaabe art retailer Heart Berry, is a stellar success story among Native artists who collaborate with Eighth Generation through the Inspired Natives Project. Eighth Generation is a Seattle-based company founded by artist and FPF Artist in Business Leadership alumnus Louie Gong (Nooksack), a visionary leader who hustled for more than a decade to bring his art and his company to the mainstream. He invested and reinvested his life savings into Eighth Generation along with the emotional labor it took to bring the company to life. FPF’s Our Nation’s Spaces program also contributed support through Evergreen State College.

Now a fast-growing multi-million dollar company — arguably the largest Native-owned arts company in the U.S. and Canada — Eighth Generation has reached the point of being able to launch and help sustain the careers of numerous Native artists, like Sarah.

For years, Eighth Generation worked on developing Indigenous artists across the U.S.. Sarah was among their first.

“Sarah is a star in our Inspired Natives Project”
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(L-R) 1. Photo by by Wendi Baldwin. Courtesy of Sarah Agaton Howes. 2. Faith Wool Blanket by B. Yellowtail. Bethany Yellowtail (Northern Cheyenne/Crow) is a 2015 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellow. Photo courtesy of Eighth Generation.

“Sarah is a star in our Inspired Natives Project,” Louie says. “She came to us about three years ago as a beadwork artist who hardly made any money from her art. Now, she is the primary breadwinner in her family.”

The moment Sarah wrapped Oprah in the “Renewal” blanket marked a milestone in Sarah’s life, crossing a new finish line for not only the running club she founded, but in her outstanding business success.

“When people look at that picture, they see Oprah in a blanket, and I think that’s great,” Louie says. “But I see Sarah is also in the picture and, on behalf of Eighth Generation, I feel pride in our ability to share tools that artists like Sarah need to have opportunities to seize the day.”

The root of this opportunity, and all of those created by Eighth Generation, can be traced back to Louie, an Indigenous artist who began drawing on shoes in 2008. Though he was best known for his hand-drawn custom shoes, Louie’s journey as an artist led him to wonder what could be done to push Native artists and their creations into the mainstream. That eventually became Eighth Generation and the Inspired Natives Project.

“It’s not just my effort,” Louie says. “I’ve had a lot of support in my journey, including from First Peoples Fund.”

In 2014 and again in 2016, Louie was a First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership Fellow. He remained in contact with artists from his cohort, hiring many of them as contractors.

Eighth Generation also received a First Peoples Fund Our Nations’ Spaces grant in 2016 to help grow a unique ecology for Native artists — one that supports individual artists in a way that filters money back into communities while reaching out on national and international levels. Eighth Generation is a model Indigenous Arts Ecology.

“I appreciate that kind of support, which we’ve received from key leaders within the Native communities like Lori [FPF President Lori Pourier], so thank you for that,” Louie says.

Fast forward to November 2019 when the Snoqualmie Tribe acquired the company,

“As Eighth Generation grew, the investment required to get to the next level got bigger,” Louie explains. “We reached the point where we needed to get some muscle behind the hustle.”

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(L-R) 1. Ribbons Wool Blanket, Faith Wool Blanket and the Tribute Wool Blanket by the Inspired Natives Project. Brittney Couture Photography, courtesy of Eighth Generation. 2. Washington Governor Jay Inslee speaks outside Eighth Generation's flagship store in Seattle's Pike Place Market, declaring "Native Arts Week" while Founder Louie Gong looks on. Photo courtesy of the Snoqualmie Tribe.

That meant selling the company — a big decision for Louie and his team, as well as the interested party — to the Snoqualmie Tribe, based in the Puget Sound region of Washington State. “The tribe want[ed] to demonstrate to their community that their resources are being used for investments aligned with their tradition and values,” Louie says. “And for me, there was no higher outcome for this labor of love than for hundreds of local Indigenous people to share ownership in Eighth Generation. There are a lot of dollars coming in from tribal communities, and we try to do our best to make sure the dollars Eighth Generation spends go back into some of those communities. If I look down at our activities from a high altitude, I like to see a cycle of support.”

One step at a time, Eighth Generation has become one of the fastest-growing companies in the U.S. and Canada, all while uplifting individual Native artists.

Louie is now in place as the CEO of Eighth Generation, ready to continue leading the company into new territory. This summer, they are opening a storefront near downtown Portland, Oregon, with cutting edge technology not yet widely used in retail stores. Interactive experiences and stunning Inspired Native art will draw in visitors to experience Indigenous cultures like never before.

Back in Seattle, the original Eighth Generation storefront has become a must-see stop for tourists. It is located in Pike Place Market, a destination that receives 10 million visitors annually.

Eighth Generation now leases 14,000 square feet of highly valuable and sought-after Seattle real estate. The Indigenous company is putting the space to good use with another groundbreaking endeavor — an urban manufacturing initiative.

“We’ll have a group of Native people developing expertise in technology that is absolutely the future of textiles. It’s revolutionary."

“From yarn all the way to a sales associate selling wool textiles to a customer in one of our brick and mortar stores, it will be Native people executing skills they learned on the job at Eighth Generation,” Louie says. “We’ll have a group of Native people developing expertise in technology that is absolutely the future of textiles. It’s revolutionary."

“By partnering with the Snoqualmie Tribe in this way, we’ll be able to bring our ideas like this to fruition faster and scale up the business so we can compete with more established national brands.”

It all starts with the individual artist taking a step in the right direction. Like Sarah. Louie. And John Pepion (Piikani), 2017 First Peoples Fund Artist in Business Leadership fellow and another artist in the Inspired Natives Project.

“We’re getting artists to think about the big picture and to start doing one thing a day that helps them move toward their long-term goal,” Louie says. “For the artists we work with, it’s the same long-term goal — to make the art form you love, sustainable.”

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