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Minden, tribe reach agreement on town siren with racial overtones

CARSON CITY — A Douglas County town and regional Native American tribe have announced a “collaborative agreement” that will allow the sounding of the town’s one-time racist municipal siren, a signal since recast as a latter-day tribute to first responders.

A joint statement from Town Manager John Frisby of Minden, south of Carson City, and Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, comes after passage of a state law banning racist mascots, logos and other symbols of historical discrimination in the state. That includes sirens such as Minden’s, which came to be associated with the hour by which people of color had leave a local jurisdiction for the night — so-called sundowner ordinances.

“Chairman Smokey and Mr. Frisby engaged in open and honest dialogue,” a statement posted Wednesday on the town’s website reads. “Their discussions resulted in a mutual agreement that the evening siren should continue to sound, but to change its time from 6:00 p.m. each evening to 5:00 p.m. The 5:00 p.m. siren will serve to acknowledge the volunteer firefighters and first responders who have been historically dispatched by the town siren. Deleting the 6:00 p.m. siren will honor those hurt by archaic sundowner mandates of prior eras.

“Chairman Smokey and Town Manager Frisby are hopeful that this change will herald greater respect and genuine progress for all members of our communities,” the statement concludes.

The Washoe Tribe has sought to silence the twice-a-day signal, which also sounds at noon, because of its association with discrimination toward Native Americans. The neighboring town of Gardnerville passed an ordinance in 1907 mandating that all native Americans leave town by sundown. The county extended that ordinance in 1917 to require Native Americans to leave the county by 6:30 p.m.

The Minden siren was installed in 1921 and sounded at noon and 6 p.m. for fire service emergency tests. Though never intended as a sundowner signal, the time of its blast nonetheless came to be associated with the ordinance, signaling to Native Americans that they had 30 minutes to leave town.

The sundowner ordinance was repealed in 1974. For others, the siren stirs nostalgia, in part for the town’s long-defunct volunteer fire service.

The agreement could serve as a workaround to a provision of Assembly Bill 88, which passed the Legislature this spring and was promptly signed by the governor. The law prohibits schools from using names, logos, mascots or other racially discriminatory identifiers and recommends changing racially derogatory geographic place names in the state. It also outlaws the use of sirens, whistles or other signals used in connection with a sundowner ordinance. The new law takes effect Oct. 1.

The Washoe Tribe — the name means “people from here” — inhabited the Great Basin and the Eastern Sierra for millennia before white settlers arrived. The nearby Douglas County town of Genoa, founded in 1851, was the first settlement in the Nevada territory.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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