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‘Let it speak for us’: Legislator plans to pursue South Dakota flag redesign

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‘Let it speak for us’: Legislator plans to pursue South Dakota flag redesign

Dec 10, 2023 | 8:00 am ET
By Makenzie Huber
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‘Let it speak for us’: Legislator plans to pursue South Dakota flag redesign
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The state flag of South Dakota flies over the South Dakota Mines campus on Dec. 8, 2023, in Rapid City. (Seth Tupper/South Dakota Searchlight)

South Dakota needs a new flag, says Brandon Valley High School student Ryan Schultz.

Schultz, who is passionate about flag design and vexillology (the study of flags), is leading the charge, pushing for legislation that would establish a redesign committee.

“I think having a good flag can unify us as a people,” Schultz said.

Ryan Schultz is a senior at Brandon Valley High School (Courtesy of Ryan Schultz)
Ryan Schultz is a senior at Brandon Valley High School. (Courtesy of Ryan Schultz)

In his hometown of Brandon and around the Sioux Falls area it’s rare to see the South Dakota flag flown aside from governmental buildings.

U.S. flags and Sioux Falls flags are the most popular in the area. Even University of Nebraska flags are flown more commonly than the South Dakota flag.

That’s proof, he said: If South Dakotans don’t care enough to fly their state flag in their front yard, wear it on merchandise or learn its history and symbolism, then a revamp is needed.

Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, was inspired by Schultz’s suggestion and is considering introducing legislation in January. The bill is still being drafted, but would likely create a commission made up of legislators, governor-appointed members, tribal leaders and South Dakotans with expertise in history, art and tourism to help pick the new flag.

“Our state flag serves as an important symbol of the state,” Nesiba said in an emailed statement. “A new design has the potential to raise awareness and in the process boost tourism, and to attract college and university students, entrepreneurs and workers.”

Ultimately, the new state flag would be approved or rejected by the state Legislature and South Dakota governor, Nesiba said.

South Dakota flag’s 114-year history

State Historical Society Executive Director Ben Jones flies the state flag outside his Sioux Falls home. He sees more state flags in Pierre than the rest of the state.

“I don’t see it as much, certainly compared to Texas,” Jones said. “If it doesn’t mean much to people today, my own view is it should. It has a history that’s interesting.”

The state flag has been changed twice in its 114-year history.

South Dakota did not have a state flag for its first 20 years as a state. It wasn’t until Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood and a U.S. marshal at the time, introduced the idea to his state senator in the early 1900s. Bullock was inspired by a Spanish-American War veterans’ group to create one, Jones said.

The senator, Earnest May of Deadwood, introduced a bill to establish a flag designed by Ida Anding of the State Historical Society. The flag featured a sun on an azure background with “South Dakota” and “The Sunshine State” in an arc above and below the sun.

Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, talks with other legislators on the House floor after Gov. Kristi Noem's budget address on Dec. 5, 2023. (Makenzie Huber, South Dakota Searchlight)
Sen. Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls, talks with other legislators on the House floor after Gov. Kristi Noem’s budget address on Dec. 5, 2023. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)

On the back was printed the state seal featuring hills, the Missouri River, a farmer, a mine and cattle to represent the state’s agriculture, diverse industry and natural resources. The state seal also includes the state motto, “Under God the people rule,” which Jones said has seen some controversy.

“Sometimes the meaning of those things, some people take that in ways it’s not intended,” Jones said. “If it was understood in the manner of Thomas Jefferson and then the state founders meant it, as a secular reminder of where our rights come from, even the deist Jefferson thought they were created by ‘the creator.’ I think that’s important politically because if the government didn’t give you your rights, the creator did, then the government can’t take them away. I think that’s a key part that’s in our flag that isn’t in other state flags.”

The intricate seal was placed in the center of the azure background, all with a fringe of gold trimmed around the edge of the flag. The use of the state seal on the flag followed a Civil War-era trend among other state flags at the time.

This was the official state flag until 1963, when the two sides of the flag were combined. It was expensive to manufacture flags with different emblems on each side, and there were few South Dakota state flags in existence. The Legislature created a “Special State Flag Account” in 1966 through the South Dakota treasurer to sell flags “at cost” to the public and directed the state to keep a supply of South Dakota flags on hand to “meet the demand” from the public and organizations.

The flag changed again in 1992 to read “The Mount Rushmore State,” when legislators changed the state’s nickname during Governor George S. Mickelson’s administration. Florida had also claimed “The Sunshine State” nickname in 1970, and the move aligned with Mickelson’s focus on strengthening South Dakota’s tourism industry — especially in the Black Hills, Jones said.

Yankton lawmaker Bernie Hunhoff broached the topic of modernizing South Dakota’s flag in 2012, though the legislation quickly failed.

The description of the official state flag of South Dakota is outlined in state law, along with the official pledge to the state flag. It commonly flies over state buildings and schools across South Dakota, as well as the Ellsworth Air Force Base and National Guard installations.

“You can broaden your perspective and understanding when you understand why the flag is the way it is,” Jones said. “You can see that the sentiments it was meant to express still apply to you.”

South Dakota flag: ‘an objective failure’

But South Dakota’s flag fails the “good flag test,” Schultz argues.

The North American Vexillological Association released guidelines for creating flags in 2006, and highlighted South Dakota as a “Bad Flag.” According to these guidelines — which can be controversial in the vexillology world — flags should:

  • Be simple enough for a child to draw it from memory.
  • Use meaningful symbolism through imagery, colors and patterns.
  • Use a limited color palette.
  • Refrain from lettering or seals.
  • Be distinctive from other flags.

The main reasons South Dakota fails the test is because it uses an intricate seal that can’t be seen clearly from a distance or when the flag is waving several different directions in the wind, and because it uses lettering, which can be unreadable if the words appear backward on the flag while being flown.

Minnesotans aren’t happy about the six finalists for the new state flag

Michael Green, an Indiana-based graphic designer, vexillographer and owner of Flags for Good, believes it would benefit South Dakota to redesign its flag. He compares flag design to branding and marketing.

“Branding is all about creating symbols of belonging and identity,” Green said. “If you look at a city or state creating a new flag, it’s about creating symbols — something you want to fly or a brand you want to wear on your chest, assign to your identity and help express yourself, which is like Nike or Adidas brands.”

Just like a company, states can rebrand or refine their image too, he said.

Utah recently redesigned its state flag, Minnesota is in the process of redesigning its flag this year and Mississippi redesigned its flag in 2021. Other states considering simplifying their flags include Maine, Michigan and Illinois.

Minnesota’s six finalist flag designs, submitted by the public and selected by a committee, have received backlash and strong critiques online. Public input is currently being accepted on the state’s website, and the commission will choose the new flag design on Dec. 12.

Examples of impactful state flags include Texas, Alaska and New Mexico. Even though California breaks the “good flag” rule, it’s memorable and something its residents take pride in.

“The South Dakota flag is an objective failure in every use: People aren’t using it to show how proud they are of South Dakota. Non-South Dakotans couldn’t pick it out of a group of other state flags from a distance,” Green said. “So redesign it. You have nothing to lose, but you have everything to gain.”

Is a flag redesign worth it?

Flags don’t have to follow the “good flag, bad flag” rules, said Scot Guenter, a professor of American studies at San Jose State University and an academic vexillologist — though he does consider them practical guidelines.

What matters is not just that the flag is “pretty” but that the flag is meaningful and connected to the group identity of the people the flag represents.

“If South Dakotans don’t feel connected to the flag then it doesn’t really matter and it should be easy to change it,” Guenter said. “Flags are very important symbols of identity. Even though we live in the world of the internet, flags are used everywhere on the internet to express your identity. They’ll continue to be important symbols.”

However, Schultz isn’t hopeful that Nesiba’s bill will pass in its first year. He expects it’ll take years and a larger movement to grow among South Dakotans before the state will see the same benefits as he does.

A new flag design “could be an opportunity for South Dakota,” Guenter added.

“If those early changes came for financial reasons or budget saving reasons, that could be a time for South Dakotans to say, ‘Let it speak for us,’” he said.