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How a Nevada Town’s Racist “Sundown” Siren Became a Quaint Dinner Bell in the White Imagination

Every day, at 6:30 p.m. sharp, a siren blares through the town of Minden. For citizens of the Washoe nation, the sound carries a painful, violent memory.

Black Lives Matter protesters hold an event in Douglas County and were met by groups with confederate flags
Trevor Bexon/Shutterstock

In Minden, Nevada, a cherry-red siren, perched atop the town’s volunteer fire department, sounds every evening at 6 p.m. on the dot. If you listen to town manager J.D. Frisby tell it, the siren is a symbolic gesture of gratitude for Minden’s emergency workers. Other residents consider it a charming dinner bell, signaling the call to home. In reality, though, the siren was, and still is, a warning—an active relic of an early twentieth-century ordinance that ordered Native residents to exit the county’s borders by 6:30 p.m. The current split in the town over the siren’s purpose, which has stretched on for decades, is a reminder that Confederate monuments aren’t the only ways in which infrastructures of white supremacy have been rebranded in the white imagination. It is another effort to soften the rough edges of history by way of claims about legacy or harmless nostalgia.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a feature on the siren and the history of Douglas County’s municipalities—Minden among them—as sundown towns. In a not-so-distant past, the siren was an explicit reminder for any and all Native people who lived in the town or on the sovereign lands of the nearby Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada that the daily curfew was nearing. At 6:30 p.m., all nonwhite residents had to be in their homes or out of town, lest they faced a civil fine, arrest, or physical violence. There is no budging on this history. It is what the siren was designed for, and since it went up a century ago, it is precisely what the siren’s wails have meant to the Indigenous community members who have to hear it every day.

As reported by Native News Online last fall, Minden’s neighboring town, Gardnerville, passed a law in 1908 that created a mandate for all Native peoples to exit the town by sundown. Ten years later, Douglas County passed a county-wide ordinance for all the towns within its jurisdiction that ordered the same, marking the time of 6:30 p.m. as the official cutoff for tribal citizens. In 1921, the town of Minden installed the siren, which was scheduled to sound off every day at noon and 6 p.m. For the next half-century, the siren would sound twice a day, and 30 minutes after the evening siren, Native people would be banished from all Douglas County towns. The county’s sundown ordinance was finally repealed in 1974. But the siren has blared on for another half-century. It was briefly turned off in 2006, with then–county manager Dan Holler telling The Record-Courier that the decision was an attempt to improve relations between the town and the Washoe nation; within two months, the outcry from Minden residents won out. The siren was turned back on.

The issue facing the town now is the same one facing countless public schools and local governments across the United States. As racist mascots, slurs, and business names continue to face scrutiny and calls for removal by nonwhite residents, white grievance ensures these blatantly discriminatory practices and symbols have persisted well into the twenty-first century. White communities across the country have banded together to insist that what were once clear-cut examples of racism have since taken on a symbolic status tied directly to the given high school, town, or business’s identity. Breaking down the facade, from a logical standpoint, is simple—it is a literal siren that informed Native people that they would be beaten and jailed for existing. But bringing about the necessary change, as always, has proven to be a bit more difficult.

In speaking with Native News Online last fall, Frisby conceded that his town’s siren likely carries a different meaning from the one he’s assigned it. (In 2007, Minden officials passed an ordinance to state for the record, retroactively, that the siren was merely meant to denote the town’s respect for its volunteer firefighters and nothing else.) “I do believe that psychologically the Native Americans did tie that to each other, and they were mentally thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve got 30 minutes to get out of town before the constable or old mean sheriff or whoever would come and enforce the Sundowner policy,’” Frisby told the publication.

Frisby, who is not a lifelong resident of Minden but moved to the town in recent years for work, even went as far as to state that the Washoe people are “due an apology” for the way the town and the county treated them. But when the conversation recently turned toward nixing the siren, Frisby began singing a different, more familiar tune.

In mid-April, state Assemblyman Howard Watts, a Democrat representing a Las Vegas district, added an amendment to a piece of legislation designed to rid Nevada’s public schools of all remaining racist mascots—the amendment sought also to include a ban on any alarm systems that were originally designed to signify sundown or sundown-adjacent curfews. (The bill passed through the state Senate Education Committee last week and now awaits a full-chamber vote.)

Speaking with the Reno Gazette Journal two weeks ago, and two weeks after the amendment was inserted, Frisby appeared to be exasperated by the legislature’s attempt to take action in lieu of the town’s refusal. He said that the issue was being driven by a minority of the town’s residents and that, for most folks, the siren represented a “dinner bell.” Then he dropped the facade altogether. “Where does it stop, you know?” Frisby told the Gazette Journal. “I could tell you the Lutheran bells that chime all day long are offensive to me, but being offended is a choice. At what point do we just roll over and give up to everything someone is offended by?”

Looking back at the 2006 shut-off coverage by the Record Courier, it’s hard to ignore how little has changed in 15 years regarding the stock defense that locals have used to shield the siren. One resident told the paper that the siren was “a tradition” that Minden shouldn’t abandon. Bob Hadfield, who at the time was a town board member, described the siren as “an important part of Minden’s cultural heritage” and went on to say that “none of us know the history other than to let people know when noon and 6 p.m. come.”

For Frisby, Minden, and too many other non-Natives, the definition of “us” is limited to the people they see and know—the people who look like them. The ability to empathize with the discriminatory, anti-Indigenous past is limited to bland statements of solidarity that dissipate the moment that anything in their lives must change in the slightest.

This is not an issue unique to Minden or even border towns (communities situated along tribal lands). This is America. It was just last August, in 2020, that a ski resort in Nevada—once named “Sq--w Valley Alpine Meadows”—finally decided to ditch the slur in its name. Meanwhile, the same month, Oklahoma restaurant “Es---o Joe’s,” citing an online survey it conducted, elected to keep its slur. In all likelihood, you can probably recount a local fight over a racist Native mascot at a middle or high school, complete with many of the same sentiments expressed here by Frisby and Hadfield.

Last year might have been the year that killed the Native mascot on a national scale, but fights like the one over the Minden siren—where the obliviousness and bad-faith excuses are so gobsmackingly weak that just trying to understand and counter them nearly induces an aneurysm—continue to define and limit the ability of Native people to move and exist outside of their communities. It’s a reminder that there is no single fight to address the genocidal violence that has defined America’s relationship to Indigenous people. Border towns like Minden have flexed their municipal powers to drive out Native apartment renters, police their every step, and, more broadly, keep us in our place. The through line that cuts through all of it, though, is pretty simple and forever enraging: People in power don’t like being reminded that they are punching down, particularly by the people being punched. And so they punch down more and more, all in the hope that the aggrieved will one day, finally, shut up, sit down, and let the siren play.