Matt Niswonger

Minden, Nevada’s sundown siren is a nightly reminder of our collective estrangement from nature

I am reading The Small Shall Be Strong by Matthew S. Makley. It is a history of the Washoe people in the Tahoe area. In one generation (from about 1840 to 1870) the Washoe went from proud caretakers of Lake Tahoe who had never seen a white person to barely surviving a stampede of white settlers. Their land was taken and they were pushed to the side. By the late 1800s their population dwindled to about only 500 tribal members.


n 1894 Washoe children were rounded up and forced into a boarding school called the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada. School administrators limited family visits and the students were forced to learn English and spend hours inside classrooms. For a Washoe child who depended on a harmonious connection to nature, the school/prison was like torture. Many students tried to escape and were rounded up by truant officers who captured them like animals. Some parents waited for over a year to see their children again. Others never saw their children again at all and received letters that they had died while in school with no further explanation.

For the Washoe, a connection to nature was considered fundamental to human existence. A special court in Nevada outlawed the practices of so-called “Medicine Men,” AKA “Indian Doctors.” These days the term we use is “Shamanism.” Rule 9c of the court held that shamanic activities could earn imprisonment “for a period of not less than 10 days or until the Indian Doctor provided evidence of their intent to forever abandon the unlawful practice.”

After they lost their children to the boarding schools, and their shamans were put in jail, the Washoe were further marginalized. The land they had been caretaking for thousands of years became private property owned by whites, and their “kind” was not welcome in polite society. By 1917 there was a law that all Washoe must leave town by sundown in the town of Minden, near Carson City. At 6pm there was a “whistle or siren” that blew to remind all tribe members they must leave town by 6:30. This of course did not include those employed as “house servants,” for by this time the Washoe had entered the local economy as second-class citizens, serving the households and ranches of wealthy whites just to survive. Washoe tribe members who did not leave town by sundown were beaten or jailed.

To this day a siren still rings at 6pm in the town of Minden. The Washoe have been asking for many years to please stop the siren, but the Town of Minden refuses. They say their siren has nothing to do with the Washoe and it honors first responders.  When you show them the history they simply shrug and say, “that was the past.”

To me, the siren is a metaphor for how we have lost our way. Instead of learning from the Washoe, we have marginalized them. Instead of caring for nature we are destroying it.

What would it take to reverse course? What would it take to stop hurting nature and starting caring for it like the Washoe have done for hundreds of generations in the Tahoe area? What would it take to stop ringing a siren that has been reminding the Washoe for decades that their “kind” is not welcome in polite society after sunset?

Here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s stop the siren. Let’s work together and convince the town council of Minden to stop their 6pm sundown siren. Let’s reverse course and start learning from the Washoe instead of marginalizing them. The future of our planet depends it.

Do you have any ideas and/or specific suggestions to help silence the Minden siren? Please send me an email:

For more information about the Minden siren, check out

— Matt Niswonger