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Silencing the siren: Lombardo signs bill banning sundown sirens

In 1917, Douglas County commissioners passed an ordinance requiring all “indians” to “leave and be out of the town limits of the towns of Gardnerville, and Minden” by 6:30 each night.

A siren was installed a few years later in Minden and rang every night at 6, letting Native Americans know they had 30 minutes to leave town or else face fines or jail time.

That ordinance was repealed in 1976, but the siren continued, taking on a different meaning for many of the townspeople who used it as a “dinner bell” and to honor first responders.

But for Native people — particularly the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California — the siren served as a “beacon for racism” and a “trigger for historical and intergenerational trauma,” said Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California Vice Chairman Patrick Burtt.

After 106 years, that siren will ring no more, or else Minden will face hefty fines.

Gov. Joe Lombardo signed last week Senate Bill 391, prohibiting a county, city and an unincorporated town from sounding a siren, bell or alarm in association with an ordinance like Douglas County’s that required people of a particular race, ethnicity or color to leave at a certain time, known as “sundown sirens.”

Under the bill, such an alarm can only be rung to alert people to an actual emergency, to test the siren or to celebrate a legal holiday. The law also authorizes the attorney general to order a civil penalty of no more than $50,000 against a town, city or county that violates the law.

History of suffering

“I’m thrilled that he signed the bill and was willing to do this for our state’s Native population, and this hopefully was an easy decision for him to make,” said Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Las Vegas., who sponsored the bill, in an interview with the Review-Journal.

The sundown ordinance had empowered white citizens in Douglas County to carry out penalties against Washoe peoples, Burtt said during a hearing in May. Washoe elders have shared “horror stories” of their suffering, from racial slurs to physical and sexual assaults, Burtt said.

“The social consequences of this ordinance have everlasting effects of the Washoe people and other native peoples of Nevada,” Burtt said.

In 2021, Nevada banned the use of sirens that once sounded as signals for nonwhite people to leave a town before sundown. The language of that 2021 bill, however, said that the bell could not be rung at the time historically associated, so Minden moved it from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m., Harris said during an Assembly Committee on Government Affairs hearing in May.

The town of Minden continued sounding their siren, saying that it is to honor emergency personnel and was thought of as a “dinner bell,” said Minden Town Manager J.D. Frisby in a 2021 Reno-Gazette Journal article. Frisby did not return requests for comment Monday.

Senate Bill 391 is really a “no, no, no, we mean it-type piece of legislation,” Harris said during the hearing.

“We have to make sure that we are no longer a state with a sundown siren,” she said. “That has to end.”

Opposition in Fallon

Some Fallon residents were opposed to the bill, worried that it would prohibit the use of a whistle from their fire department that is blown daily for testing purposes. The whistle was built to call upon voluntary firefighters and is blown daily for a test, said Jared Dooley, fire chief of the city of Fallon.

In an interview Monday, Harris said that the bill only applies to towns that historically had a sundown ordinance, and she does not believe Fallon falls into that category.

While the siren will no longer ring, the pain that it caused has a lasting toll. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California wants more change, beginning first with an apology from the towns as well as curriculum development that partners with the tribe, Burtt said.

“It’s time for the Wašíw to stop surviving and start living,” Burtt said in an email to the Review-Journal, using the traditional spelling of the tribe’s name.

Contact Jessica Hill at jehill @reviewjournal.com. Follow @jess_hillyeah on Twitter.

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