Reed Soderstrom always has been content to stay off the radar in relative anonymity. So he's a little out of his comfort zone driving around in an eye-catching recreational vehicle emblazoned with the Fighting Sioux logo and fighting words like "Save the Name" and "Repeal the Repeal."
Soderstrom, a Minot attorney, is chairman of the sponsoring committee petitioning to get a measure on the November ballot that will ensconce the Fighting Sioux in the state constitution as the official mascot of the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. His group already has turned in signatures to get a measure on the June ballot to reverse legislative action that retired the Sioux name. Filing of the petitions on Feb. 7 stopped the university from erasing the nickname.
Efforts to save the name have aroused North Dakotans who support tradition or oppose what they consider to be bullying by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and Big Sky Conference, which have talked of sanctions if the name stays.
The focal point of the campaign to save the Sioux nickname is an old RV with a decal job. Reed Soderstrom, chairman of the committees for the two proposed measures, has taken the RV around the state to collect signatures on petitions.
Minot attorney Reed Soderstrom sits Feb. 17 in his office, decorated with American Indian craftwork.
Soderstrom isn't particularly moved by either of those reasons.
"My motivation is the Sioux Indians really got a bad deal out of this. They never got a seat at the table with the NCAA," he said. "The NCAA, when it implemented its policy, I know never considered the 1969 religious ceremony at UND when elders of Sioux tribes from both Standing Rock and Spirit Lake gave the right to use the name Fighting Sioux. They know nothing about or even considered how the Fighting Sioux name was received by a majority of the Sioux Indians."
In the debate over whether UND's use of the Sioux name is offensive, the NCAA agreed to accept the name if the Sioux nations at Standing Rock and Spirit Lake reservations in North Dakota gave official support. Members of Spirit Lake did so in a public vote. On the Standing Rock reservation, the tribal council has declined to offer support or to hold a vote.
The controversial action by the Standing Rock council is what drew Soderstrom into the fray. He has worked extensively with tribal members and tribal courts since graduating from the UND Law School in 1990. He obtained his bachelor's degree from Mayville State University.
When a group of tribal members sought an attorney to raise a constitutional challenge against their council, it was Soderstrom's name that came up. Archie Fool Bear of Fort Yates, a former tribal councilman, contacted Soderstrom and the response was just what he hoped.
"The biggest thing he said was, 'I am willing to help,'" Fool Bear said.
When it comes to the significance of the 1969 blessing on the Fighting Sioux name, Soderstrom gets it, Fool Bear said. Soderstrom knows the Sioux history, acknowledges their pride and shares in their indignation at being denied a public vote or a seat at NCAA discussions.
"He understands this. You have to know that (Sioux) name to understand this isn't to spite people. This fight is for the rights of the people to be heard," said Fool Bear, who is a member of the measures' sponsoring committee.
A tribal judge rejected the court challenge to the Standing Rock council's actions. The North Dakota Legislature then put the Fighting Sioux name and logo in law, only to come back in special session to repeal it. The referendum seeks to repeal the repeal.
Soderstrom had some experience with initiated measures in serving on the sponsoring committee of the Religious Restoration Amendment. As Measure 3 on the June ballot, the constitutional amendment limits the government from penalizing someone acting on their religious beliefs.
Soderstrom saw potential for the initiative and referral process to work for Sioux nickname supporters as well.
"I put it together, and it started snowballing from there," said Soderstrom, who views his chairmanship as a matter of expediency. He hasn't been a prominent spokesman and says others have worked harder on collecting signatures.
However, Soderstrom has traveled in his decaled RV to take petitions to places around the state where people gather. Often, those places have been sporting events and sometimes Sioux sporting events.
Petition sponsors found themselves in court arguing unsuccessfully for the right to set up inside UND's Ralph Engelstad Arena. The judge's ruling against them had a ripple effect in keeping petition gatherers out of other venues in the state, Soderstrom said. He doesn't think the exclusions are legal and hinted that the fight might not be over.
More pressing at the moment, though, is a lawsuit brought by the State Board of Higher Education over the constitutionality of putting the Fighting Sioux name into law, which could keep the referendum off the ballot. Soderstrom said this is a more serious step for the board than challenging the Legislature for the authority to decide the nickname.
"Instead of taking on the Legislature and protecting their turf against the Legislature, in my estimation, they've willfully and intentionally come out against the people. I hope they have made a tactical mistake. We'll see. My goal is just to get it on the ballot," he said.
Fighting Sioux supporters turned in about 17,000 signatures, nearly 3,500 more than required, on the referendum. In the learning curve on petition circulation, Soderstrom threw out about 500 signatures before submission due to lack of adequate monitoring in a few locations. The law states that petition signatures must be witnessed by circulators. The Secretary of State's office now is conducting its standard review of the petitions to determine whether the measure qualifies to go on the ballot.
The separate, constitutional measure needs 26,904 signatures by Aug. 8.
Although the referendum accomplishes what supporters set out to do, the constitutional measure will seal the deal so it doesn't resurface, Soderstrom said. He understands the "issue fatigue" that already has set in, but said the solution is not to drop the fight but permanently resolve it.
"I don't care if we are tired. This is an exercise in doing the right thing," he said.
If North Dakotans felt the tribes didn't want the name, they would respect that, he said. But the Fighting Sioux name is honored, and the vote at Spirit Lake and grassroots support at Standing Rock show that the tribal people sense that honor, he said.
"That's enough for me. That's all I need to know," Soderstrom said. "How can we respect what's being done to us by the NCAA when the Sioux people want the name? Why should we stand for it? Isn't this something where common sense can prevail?"
Nor does he consider UND's concerns about sanctions by the NCAA or expulsion by Big Sky to be well founded.
"If I honestly thought it would hurt UND, I wouldn't be doing this. I don't feel that in my heart," he said. "I know I am doing the right thing. I sleep well at night."
Soderstrom considers himself a UND sports fan, attending a couple of hockey games a year and following the football team. His son and a nephew currently attend the university.
Should the referendum get on the ballot, Soderstrom has no campaign plan. He described his group as unorganized and unfunded, a weak match against officials and other heavy-hitters on the university system's side. Although confident today that public sentiment favors the referendum, Soderstrom said he would accept the decision if voters reject the measure in June.
"To me, the objective again is giving it to the people. It's not so much the result as the process," Soderstrom said. "I will feel good that I have done everything I think I could do. The only thing worse than failing is not trying."