Nevada Town Resists Silencing Siren Tied to 'Sundown' Law, Despite Indian Tribe Request

In June, while Nevada banned sirens, alarms, and bells historically tied to sundown ordinances as part of a new law, the town of Minden fought the new law, despite the request of the Washoe Tribe to silence the town's siren.

Minden is one of what experts believe were thousands of American communities where discriminatory "sundown" laws were in effect, either through formal ordinances or unwritten rules enforced with intimidation and injury.

The town siren has blared since 1921. Until 1974, it served as a warning to non-white people that they were required to leave town before the sun faded behind the rugged mountaintops of the Carson range.

Some residents of the town referred to the shutting off of the siren as "cancel culture." Others defended it as central to their heritage and likened its sound to a dinner bell. Meanwhile, to Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe, it is "a living piece of historical trauma."

"It's not just about the siren," Smokey said. "The siren is a reminder to a lot of people out here, especially in Dresslerville, of that past," he said of the tribal community just 5 miles south, where stories of brutality have been passed down through generations.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Nevada Town Pushes Back on Siren Ban
This June 30, 2021 photo shows a sign for the town of Minden, Nev. Efforts to silence the century-old siren, seen in the background, that blares every night at 6 p.m. are sparking debates over how to confront the region's history of racism and violence. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California associates the siren with a historic "sundown ordinance" that once made it illegal for them to be in Minden and neighboring Gardnerville after nightfall. Residents of the mostly white town defend it as a tradition that marks time and honors first responders. After state lawmakers banned the siren, the Washoe Tribe's chairman and Minden town manager agreed to move the siren to 5 p.m. but the compromise left many tribal members unsatisfied and awaits discussion at the tribal council. Sam Metz/Associated Press

To members of the Washoe Tribe, the siren is inextricably linked to the ordinance, Smokey said. Elders remember seeing law enforcement jailing Native Americans and residents attacking non-white people.

"Those sirens are a reminder of that history, and the fact that they are still used indicates that our present is not so far removed from its past," said Heather O'Connell, a Louisiana State University sociologist who has studied the correlation between historic sundown ordinances and contemporary inequality.

A nationwide reckoning over racism in the United States erupted last summer following George Floyd's murder and sparked protests in large cities across the country. And in small, mostly white towns like Minden, it revived a 15-year-old debate over the siren and whether it should be silenced.

In 2006, county officials turned off the siren hoping to improve relations with the Washoe. But it was sounding again two months later following backlash from locals. As a consolation, Minden passed an ordinance describing the siren's intent as honoring first responders.

The siren earlier this year drew interest from state lawmakers, along with the "Riders Against Racism," a group of San Francisco Bay Area and Lake Tahoe mountain bikers. The organization gathered 13,000 signatures to petition to silence the siren, and held a ride through historic Washoe lands from the town to the shores of Lake Tahoe.

Before Gov. Steve Sisolak signed the siren ban into law, town officials told the Reno Gazette-Journal they had no intention of silencing it. They said Minden purchased the siren in 1921 — four years after county officials passed the sundown law — and therefore it wouldn't be "associated" per the requirements of state law.

Despite disagreement over the siren's meaning, Smokey and Minden Town Manager JD Frisby brokered an agreement in June to start sounding it at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. Dissociating the time of the sound from the historic ordinance, they said in a joint statement, would "acknowledge the volunteer firefighters and first responders who have been historically dispatched by the town siren" and "honor those hurt by archaic sundowner mandates of prior eras."

It now rings at 5 p.m. — a compromise that many in the tribe have said they're uncomfortable with and will challenge.

Frisby attributes the dispute to conflicting versions of history and emphasizes intent over interpretation. He doesn't doubt the siren was used to signal the enforcement of the ordinance but said it was purchased to honor first responders. Nothing he's found in the town archive or other records connects the siren to the sundown ordinance, and he doesn't believe the defense of the siren is incompatible with acknowledging the county ordinance's "awful" legacy.

"A lot of Minden residents have taken this hard because their fathers and grandfathers were the ones that worked to save up the money to purchase that siren for the purpose of responding to emergencies," he said. "It's just unfortunate that because of the proximity in time, it's been lumped in with this ordinance."

Assemblyman Howard Watts, the Las Vegas Democrat who sponsored the legislation to shut off the siren, said the lingering pain its sound evokes demanded action. He respects the agreement the tribal chairman and town manager reached, but beforehand didn't think the town's effort to clarify what the siren means in their eyes was sufficient.

"Instead of changing when they rang the siren, they've decided to be more explicit about it being for first responders," he said. "There's nothing wrong with honoring first responders, but you can do that at any time of the day. Having that siren continue to ring a half-hour before there was an ordinance that indicated to an entire group of people that they were no longer welcome in a community, that's a deeply hurtful thing."

Smokey told The Associated Press that the agreement to change the timing of the siren wouldn't be the Washoe Tribe's final word on the matter. He said he's told Frisby and tribal citizens — many of whom were upset about the agreement — that his intention was to secure "immediate action."

"Why do they insist on keeping it? Why have a siren to remind us that we're still considered less than people?" Washoe elder Ann James Big Goose told the local newspaper, the Gardnerville Record-Courier. She wants the siren shut off.

Smokey said tribal members have differing opinions on the topic, with many elders hesitant to reopen wounds and revisit traumatic experiences. Before the state law takes effect on Oct. 1, the issue will go before the Tribal Council, which will decide the path forward – whether to pursue the siren's removal, a public apology from Minden or another remedy.

Smokey said he expects the council to ask for more than moving the time the siren blares. Regardless, he's satisfied to have spread awareness about the region's history.

"We can't fix problems if we don't admit we have problems," he said. "And we're still dealing with the history of everything that's happened."

Nevada Town Fights Banning of Siren
The town of Minden, Nev., is pushed back against the banning of their sundown sirens that historically targeted non-whites much to the discomfort of the local Washoe Tribe. Pictured, the only snow left in the Sierra appears to be above 8,000 feet, as viewed in this photo taken looking north from Carson Pass on Highway 88 on April 11, 2021, near Kirkwood, Calif. George Rose/Getty Images