So woke: Nevada passes legislation to ban use of ‘discriminatory’ mascots and sundown sirens

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NEVADA — Legislation was signed into law last week that will ban school mascots deemed racially discriminatory as well as sundown sirens going off, which some consider to be an act of discrimination because they were used in the past to warn people of certain races and ethnicities to leave town by a specified time.

On Friday, Nevada’s Gov. Steve Sisolak (D) was joined by members of the Nevada Indian Commission and tribal elders during the signing of legislation.

Assembly Bill 88 specifically prohibits using “a name, logo, mascot, song or other identifier associated with the Confederate States of America or a federally recognized Indian tribe,” except when a tribe has specifically given a school permission to do so, according to CNN

The legislation applies to public schools and charters, universities and community colleges, according to an NPR report.

The law also orders the State Board on Geographic Names to recommend changes for “any geographic feature” that has a name which is considered racially discriminatory.

Regarding sundown sirens, the new law also prohibits communities from sounding signals associated with a old law “which required persons of a particular race, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin or color to leave the town by a certain time,” CNN reported.

The town of Minden was reportedly the target of the sundown siren legislation. A fire siren goes on twice daily in the town, but some allege that it is associated with a law dating to 1917 that ordered members of the Washoe Tribe out of town by 6:30 p.m., according to the Record-Courier newspaper.

While the ordinance was eliminated in 1974, the siren, which is situated on top of the town’s volunteer fire department, has continued to sound twice a day — once at noon and once at 6 p.m.

Democratic State Assemblyman Howard Watts, who sponsored the bill, told KRNV:

“It’s something that is still deeply hurtful. There are still members of the Washoe Tribe and others who know exactly what it means when that goes off.”

Area tribal leaders have spent decades trying to end the practice of sounding the siren, and there was an anti-siren petition that gathered more than 13,000 signatures.

Watts had said at the start of Assembly Bill 88’s first committee hearing in the state Senate:

“We’re gathered here on the occupied territory of the Washoe people, who have served as stewards of this land since time immemorial. It comes as no surprise that Nevada and this nation have a complicated and conflict-filled racial history.

“From slavery and genocide, to discrimination, the actions of the past ripple forward to the present and require us to recognize and address their lingering effects.”

Tracy Kizer is a lifelong resident of Minden and a citizen of the Washoe Tribe of California and Nevada. To her, the siren is a daily reminder of injustice her family has had to endure. She told KUNR Public Radio: 

“You don’t know how much this really affects our community. It isn’t just what our ancestors went through; it’s the pain and the hate that was formed to bringing that into law.”

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Yet, Minden’s Town Manager J.D. Frisby told the Reno Gazette Journal that the nightly siren is not related to the sundown ordinance, but is rather intended to honor volunteer firefighters:

“Our siren was never tied to the sundown ordinance; it came after that. There’s a [Minden] ordinance in place right now that says that the siren sounds every day in commemoration of our first responders. … It never went off at 6:30, when the county had an ordinance to get Native Americans out of town.”

Watts indicated at the committee hearing that even if the siren was intended to honor first-responders, “you can understand why people would have a problem” with it sounding off within a half-hour of the curfew sirens.

While Frisby acknowledged that there could be possible psychological harm inflicted on tribal members, he said many longtime Minden residents associated the siren as a “dinner bell” growing up and suggested there is oversensitivity surrounding the issue:

“Where does it stop, you know? 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?

“If you were to put this on an agenda, I’d dare say you have over 300 people who want to keep the siren and 20 who don’t. We’ve got a lot of people whose parents were part of the volunteer fire department who responded to that siren in the middle of the night.”

However, in Teresa Melendez’ mind, it does not matter what the siren currently represents to Frisby or many residents. Melendez, a Native American voting rights advocate and one-time resident of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, suggested the siren is hurtful and causes pain similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Last Wednesday, Melendez told state lawmakers during a committee hearing on Assembly Bill 88 last week:

“The tribe on these traditional homelands sent a letter to Douglas County and the town of Minden asking them to stop ringing the siren. Their response was that the siren no longer signals that communities of color need to return to their home before the sun goes down, now it’s honoring first responders.

“When messages like that are expressed, the communities who have been oppressed by those practices know their concerns aren’t being taken seriously, and are being dismissed. … It’s still hurtful. It’s like having PTSD.”

However, the renaming of mascots and places, as well as the outlawing of certain sirens, is a point of contention in Nevada, NPR reported. While Assembly Bill 88 passed the state Assembly 36-6, it barely cleared the Senate, with 12 members in favor, eight opposed and one excused.

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