Rodney called 911 and went to meet the firetrucks. Linda stayed to watch the house.
As Rodney was speeding across back roads to the fire, so was a council member of the neighboring Kickapoo Indian Tribe. Emily Conklin reached the blaze just before volunteer fire departments from four nearby small towns closed off the area. The flames were already shooting 20 feet high and spreading dangerously close to a house on the Kickapoo reservation.
Rodney Lierz and Emily Conklin had met before. For almost 30 years, Conklin's tribe had been trying to build a reservoir so its members wouldn't have to collect rainwater to bathe or smash the beaver dams that keep water from flowing into their river. Over the past three decades, the Kickapoo had secured construction money, made agreements with local politicians and finished the required ecological studies. The problem was that nearby landowners had refused to sell the areas that the tribe needed to build its reservoir. Rodney Lierz owned some of that land — he was also a member of the Nemaha-Brown Water Board, the one government body that had the power to acquire the land through eminent domain on behalf of the tribe.
On this early-spring night, more water would be a good thing. The fire departments weren't equipped to handle this type of inferno. They didn't have enough water pressure to sustain a flow from the hoses or enough water to fill the tanker trucks. At best, they hoped to contain it until it burned out — which wouldn't happen until early the next day. (Later, a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigation would determine that the fire had been arson. No suspects were ever named.)
Conklin saw Rodney Lierz standing on the side of the road, watching a group of firefighters start a counterburn to push the fire away from the Kickapoo house.
She thought this might be a chance to start a conversation about whether the Kickapoo and the water board might someday reach an agreement.
"We both thought we could work together better than we had been," she recalls. "It was a very friendly conversation."
But now, two years later, amid anger, fear, paranoia, the inevitable accusations of racism and more arsons, a lawsuit over the project filed in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, is seeking action against everyone from lowly public officials such as Lierz all the way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior, trying to force the seizure of 1,000 acres of eastern Kansas land.
"It's interesting, because our tribe predates Kansas as a state. So, based on Supreme Court decisions, we should have water rights preceding state's rights," says Kickapoo attorney Damon Williams. "And if cooler heads don't prevail, we'll take this all the way, and the future of water rights in Kansas is going to be decided by one circuit judge."
If he ever decides to leave his job, the director of the Kickapoo Water Treatment Plant should have no trouble fitting in as a roadie for an aging hair-metal band.
In his early 30s, thick and heavily tattooed — including a pair of pink lips behind his right ear and, on the back of one hand, a skull with flames from the eye sockets licking up to his elbow — Craig Wahwahsuck moved to the reservation from his hometown of Atchison. He came not so much out of love for Indian culture but to stay out of jail.