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Does Minden’s Siren Remember First Responders, Racism or Both?

For Native American’s in Northern Nevada, a siren that blasts nightly in Minden is a living piece of historical trauma.

Serrell Smokey is the chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. In a recent Facebook post, he explained why the siren is a reminder of why Minden was once a sundown town - a town where people who were not white were not allowed to stay after the sun went down.

"This is something that has been a fight for the Washoe Tribe for a long time," he said, "Members of the Washoe Tribe groups have come together and tried to get the siren removed back 2006. The siren was removed for a little bit but then put back in place again by the town."

Smokey said he is seeing that issues like the siren are getting new attention. He said it was almost a forgotten issue for members of his tribe.  

"It's about more than just shutting a siren down," he said, "It's about acknowledging the history of this town. Acknowledging the fact that there was a huge amount of racism, a huge amount of discrimination toward non-white citizens, mainly the Washoe people that lived in this area."

Smokey is asking the town officials to silence the siren. 

But the issue isn't that simple. Many of the residents of Minden see it as nostalgic and a reminder of their childhoods when they knew they had to be home when the siren sounded.

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They also associate the sound with local firefighters who protected people and property during emergencies. 

John Frisby is the town manager in Minden. He explained that the siren sounds at noon and 6 p.m., as a test so volunteer firefighters know that it is still working. 

He said it was installed years ago as part of the town's emergency response and it has nothing to do with the sundown ordinance that was put into place by Douglas County in 1917.

That ordinance required Native Americans to leave the towns of Gardnerville and Minden by 6:30 p.m. The ordinance wasn't repealed until 1974. 

"There is no doubt that the history is there," Frisby said, "That is a black eye. I've said it many times that is not something that the Minden town, the board I serve, is proud of. That is our history and we're willing to live with that and whatever comes from it. But to tie the siren to that history is wrong."

As for when it was turned off in 2006, Frisby said it started when there was a problem with the siren's timer, which was controlled by the area's phone company.

"It needed some mechanical upgrades," he explained, "The county manager at the time, is my understanding, took advantage of that. There was some other negotiations going on with the tribe. He used this as an opportunity to gain favor, and he, himself, without any direction from any board decided not to fix the issue."

However, when the town realized it hadn't been fixed, the town board decided to put up the money to get it fixed.

Then later in 2006, Douglas County passed a resolution stating that the siren was there to honor the area's first responders. That resolution still stands, Frisby said.

Minden is not unique in having an ordinance directing non-white people to leave at sundown, and it is not the only town that had a siren associated with that ordinance, said Tyler Parry, assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UNLV.

"These towns are not all white by accident," Parry said, "They were intentionally trying to keep out predominantly African Americans in most parts of the country, but in the case of the West, in places like California, Arizona and Nevada, there were laws specifically discriminating against Native Americans and people of Asian descent as well." 

He said sirens can be found in the Midwest and the upper South.

The idea behind the sundown town was that the town couldn't promise people of color protection when the sun went down, he said. 

But really they were an example of how Jim Crow laws, that are often associated with southern states, really extended around the country.

"Jim Crow-style policies of segregation did permeate throughout the United States into the Midwest, into the West and into the North and they had very similar policies," he said, "Jim Crow-style segregation really did touch every part of America, Las Vegas included and Northern Nevada."

The argument from people who want to keep the siren is that even if it was associated with the sundown law a century ago that symbolism has changed. 

 "I'm sympathetic to the idea that monuments and symbols can be changed and adjusted, described and dealt with but I think what really needs to happen is that people really need to hear out these marginalized and unrepresented groups for the trauma that is actually associated with these symbols," Parry said.

Parry said it seems strange to cling to something that you know is violating - even symbolically - the rights of citizenship.

As for Frisby, he said he has spoken, only briefly, with Chairman Smokey, but he is more than willing to have another conversation to see if they can come to a solution.

"I'm a person that if I think change needs to happen or there is a problem I'm a solution-oriented person. I come with solutions and not just - it's got to be turned off," he said.

Frisby said there have been discussions about a way to honor first responders and the areas' indigenous peoples.  

Guests

John Frisby, town manager, Minden; Tyler Parry, Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies Program, UNLV; Serrell Smokey, Chairman, Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California

 

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