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Debate resurfaces over Douglas County’s long-sounding siren and area’s “Sundowner Town” past

Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 6:23 PM PDT
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MINDEN, Nev. (KOLO) - A longtime tradition in Douglas County is once again under scrutiny, this time during a year in which racism and social injustice are at the forefront of current events.

Since the 1920s, a siren has sounded from the fire department in Minden at both noon and 6 p.m. For many locals, it’s a daily noise they’ve grown attached to.

“This was farm land,” said Pam, a Douglas County resident since 1983 who elected not to share her last name. “It went off an noon because it was lunchtime and it went off at six because the day was done and it was time to go home.”

Minden town manager JD Frisby says the siren was created for emergencies and sounded twice a day as a test.

“There’s a lot of sentimental feelings nostalgic to that siren,” said Frisby.

On the other side, the Washoe Tribe says the evening siren was connected to the town’s “sundowner” ordinances, which called for Indians to be out of town by sunset. The ordinances, passed in 1908 in Gardnerville and extended county-wide in 1917, weren’t repealed until the 70s.

“Skins, it’s time to go home,” said Wyatt Vernon, an 82-year-old member of the Washoe People. “Get out of town.”

Serrell Smokey is the Chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. He says part of his platform while running included addressing the siren.

”It symbolizes one, racism, because that’s why it was created,” said Smokey. “Two, oppression.”

The siren is now controlled by the town of Minden. Frisby, who assumed the role of Town Manager in 2018, says he believes there was an unintended connection between the “sundowner” ordinances and the siren.

”There’s no doubt in my mind that there was a psychological tie to the siren going off 30 minutes before they were supposed to be out of town,” said Firsby, calling the ordinances a “black eye” in their history. “But that’s not the intent of the siren.”

The debate over the siren has gained momentum after an online petition was created by Matt Niswonger, a Santa Cruz, Calif. resident who has property and family in Douglas County. In under two weeks, the petition had nearly 10-thousand signatures.

“Is this something that should go on in 2020 America?” said Niswonger. “Or is this something from the past that we want to be in the past?”

This is not a new topic of discussion. In 2006, the Washoe Tribe fought the sounding of the siren and it was turned off. Frisby says it was silenced due to maintenance. Once residents expressed their displeasure, it was turned back on.

The county then established a resolution saying the siren now sounds to “honor first responders.”

”There’s a form of respect there,” said Firsby. “It’s almost like when it goes off, it’s a moment of silence.”

But for the Washoe People, there will never be another meaning to the siren which to them represents the area’s ugly, unjust past.

“You can’t get rid of racism, that’s very apparent,” said Carnegie Smokey, Jr., a longtime member of the Washoe Tribe. “But you can get rid of the trappings of it, and that’s the siren.”

“We’re in a time now where we need to recognize this stuff is unacceptable,” said Smokey.

The Town of Minden controls the siren and any changes would have to come in the form of an agenda item and vote by the town board. Frisby says he’s open to having conversations with the Washoe Tribe.

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