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A ride to stop the Minden siren

By Brennan Lagasse

Switchback after switchback, the trail climbs continuously as it snakes its way up Sierra Canyon. It’s hot and dry in the desert. The riparian greenery around a nearby creek offers brief reprieves of shade. The climbing feels endless, most likely because it’s my first real mountain bike ride in months, or even more likely because I’m going the wrong way on a classic downhill ride for over 4k+ vertical feet.

Thankfully, I’m not alone, and the camaraderie within the group is powerful enough to make the arduous effort feel like I’m going the right way as there is a deeper purpose attached to this ride. The pedaling remains ruthless for hours, but I knew that would be the case when I chose to sign up for the Riders Against Racism ride that took place in Minden, NV on May 29, 2021. It was my choice to join the ride and protest that day, just as it remains a choice for the town of Minden to continue to blare its sundown siren every evening at 6pm.

The Minden sundown law became a reality on April 5, 1917 when a town ordinance went into effect requiring all Native people to “leave and be out of the town limits of Gardnerville and Minden by the hour of 6:30 o’clock P.M., of each and every day.” The siren would go off to support the ordinance and served as a daily reminder that Native people in the area were treated differently simply because they were Indigenous. The ordinance was crafted by white settler-colonialists who established Minden in 1905 with a vision of a European inspired community that would be organized around a town square, the Minden Park.

Stop the Siren

Washoe tribal members Billy Merrill, Maggie Merrill, Minnie George, and one arm George in a camp at Lake Tahoe, ca. 1910-1920. Within one generation of first contact with white settlers, the Washoe were in survival mode. Photo: Special collections department, university of Nevada, Reno libraries.

The siren, located right outside of the park continues to go off to this very day. Washoe Elders are still able to recall the time when the sounding of the siren meant they had to leave town. 

The ordinance stating Native people had to leave town remained in effect until 1974. Town managers for Minden have long defended the siren stating that today the siren goes off as a test so that local volunteer firefighters know it is still working. For some residents it’s now known as part of the area’s emergency response system, or as a way to honor first-responders, or for some simply as a nostalgic sound of their childhood. All of these ambiguous claims are used to argue the siren is therefore not associated with the sundown ordinance of 1917. 

Stop the Siren

Marty Meeden and Matt Niswonger at the May 29th Stop the Siren Protest. Meedan is a retired teacher, social justice advocate, and Washoe descendant. Photo Cathy Claesson

On May 29th, when Riders Against Racism mountain bikers joined members of the Washoe and Paiute tribes on their ancestral lands in the Minden Park, a Minden local named Matt Bernard spoke to the crowd. He said local residents have nothing but love for the Washoe tribe, and as evidence he pointed to a plaque in the park that honored Washoe people who had served the country in war. In one breath it seemed Bernard was paying respect to the Washoe and justifying the siren at the same time. “I want everyone to know that the people of Minden don’t have any animosity, they only have love for the Washoe.”

It was a confusing moment at the gathering. Bernard seemed to be understanding of the undeniable fact that for some residents of the area, namely the Washoe and Paiutes, the siren was a daily reminder of the historical trauma and oppression first peoples of the area are forced to deal with as it continues to ring nightly. But in another breath, near the end of his time speaking, he said the county will simply continue ignoring any resistance towards silencing the siren even though Assembly Bill 88 was recently signed by Governor Steve Sisolak, a bill that aims to silence the siren in addition to supporting other equitable measures centered on Indigenous people of Nevada.

When Bernard further stated, “this whole issue has been difficult for everybody. I hope we can move forward and quit looking backwards about the siren,” his position became less confusing. You do not show love for an entire group of historically marginalized people by advocating for a position that essentially says he and his white community members have lived the same level of difficulties as those who were once mandated to leave their town at an arbitrary hour signaled by a town siren because they were not white. Moreover, a position that argues the way for the community to move forward is to simply pretend the history of the siren doesn’t exist is glaringly absent of the love he previously spoke to.

The infamous sundown siren of Minden Nevada before it got a new paint job. for many decades this siren rang thirty minutes before a nightly curfew law went into effect. the curfew ordinance forbade Washoe natives from being within town limits after 6:30 pm “unless employed as servants in Minden or Gardnerville households. Photo Matt Niswonger

There is no erasing history. Suppressing the past is not a viable way for society to move forward. As some have questioned recent mobilizations and movements to take down historical symbols of hate, such as statues of Confederate army leaders that fought to uphold the system of slavery in the US, the lasting lesson is that removing the statue, or a siren in this case, does not make everything right. There are lessons that still need to be shared and education to be exchanged about the oppressive past of this country. But there is no need to continue to glorify this history with a statue or a siren. Removing these physical hate symbols is a step towards reciprocity, equity, inclusion and decolonization. 

Serrell Smokey, the chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, has been working to silence the siren for years. In a Facebook post he stated, “this is something that has been a fight for the Washoe Tribe for a long time.” His position underscores that the siren is a reminder of when non-white people were not allowed to stay after the sun went down, and he further shares that this issue of the siren actually goes beyond simply shutting it off saying, “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.”

It’s up to the town of Minden to continue or shut off the siren. JD Frisby has been the Minden town manager since 2018. His position speaks to an unintended connection between the sundowner ordinance and the current use of the siren much like Bernard stating,

“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.” He’s called it a “black eye” in the history of Minden, reaffirming it’s not the current intent today, while saying he is open to conversations with the Washoe around the siren.

Stop the Siren

Stacey Burns at the may 29th Stop the Siren protest. Stacey is of Numu and Washoe descent. Photo Hope Dressler

Having worked as an ally and co-conspirator with different Native tribes over the past two decades, the Minden siren situation might seem unique, but it’s not. Tribal people defend their cultures, traditions, and ancestral lands because of the history of genocide and forced relocation of the US every day. Stopping the siren is an opportunity to remove hatred and historic discrimination towards tribal people. Can the town of Minden not find another way to honor and respect their first responders and firefighters with a messaging system that does not also provide a daily reminder to other area residents that they were once excluded from the community? Many local people say they never knew about the racist history of the siren and feel attacked by the racism call out. 

Sundown siren protestors after climbing nearly 4,000 feet from Genoa via the Sierra Canyon Trail. Photo by Anthony capaiuolo

This is not an individual issue but rather a systemic one. Now that the history has been shared alongside continuous asks from the Washoe community to stop the siren since 2006, will the town come together to stop it? This is a great opportunity for a truly respectful outcome, one in the direction of greater community health and mutual respect.

The pedaling is still relentless, but after a few hours the steepness of the climb backs off, and I start to see spacing in the canopy of the forest. A few moments later our group is collectively looking out over Da-ow-a-ga, known today as Lake Tahoe. We’re in collective awe. This was the home of the Washoe tribe for at least six thousand years before Minden first rang their sundown siren. The jewel of the Sierra is glistening in its many diverse hues of blue, and our group has completed the first piece of a long ride that loosely traced a path the Washoe once traveled, from desert to lake, to gather food, medicinals, and spend the summer months on the shore of their beloved seasonal home. 

Stop the Siren

The ride ended at Nevada Beach, a traditional Washoe summer home. Photo Brennan Lagasse.

I think about the words offered earlier in the day by retired teacher and Washoe descendant Marty Meeden about the racist history of the siren. I recall the songs, stories, and dances shared by other local Washoe and Paiutes that morning, and the true intention of our group gathering on May 29th. I think about the recent movement by the outdoor recreation community to go beyond environmental activism and see there is no protecting the Earth without protecting the people of the Earth, especially those from disenfranchised communities. 

I think about the possibility of more mountain bikers, skiers, climbers, surfers and other outdoor minded folx coming together like our bike crew to act in solidarity for justice, and using their leverage for the greater good, such as organizing our ride through protest while fundraising $2k+ dollars to benefit Washoe outdoor education.

Stop the Siren. It starts with acknowledging it, centering the voice and position of those who haven’t had a choice, and looking forward in a way that is not love for some, but love for all. That is inclusion. That is respect. That is a community looking forward, not backward.