Smoke Over Water

Linda and Rodney Lierz were halfway out of the farmhouse when they saw the smoke. The fine white smolder of a grass fire over the fields is nothing unusual — farmers burn off dead brush regularly. But in early spring 2005, in drought conditions, when the ground was dusty and winds were blowing at 60 miles per hour, only a suicidal farmer would start one.

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.

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“Had to move to stay out of trouble,” he says with a lazy smile that suggests he’s not going to elaborate about what kind of trouble or how much.

He started working at the plant in 2001, without any experience in water treatment. After his old boss left and he took a few classes, he got the director’s job. The plant is a small operation, and it seems simple enough to run except for the stink of dead fish and chlorine.

The plant drains water from a dam on the Delaware River, which has been mostly dry for more than three decades. It’s a muddy vein that meanders north to south through the 19,200 square miles of the reservation, which is 85 miles northwest of Kansas City.

Even with the runoff from snowmelt in late winter, Wahwahsuck could walk across the river — which is more than 50 feet across at its widest — without getting his shirt wet. It’s the tribe’s sole water source. It supplies homes and the tribe’s commercial farming operations, but mostly it flows to the Kickapoo’s largest source of income: the Golden Eagle Casino.

The huge, dark structure is surrounded by nothing but farmland, with bright lights that make it look like something out of Vegas — at least from a distance. Inside are rows of whooping slot machines, a few card games and a craps table.

The bingo hall, which doubles as a performance venue, is lined with portraits of Kickapoo ancestors, great men who led the tribe out of famine and war, through Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri before their arrival in Kansas in 1854 and toward a self-sustaining community. But, judging from the portraits, they hold former Kansas Gov. Joan Finney in highest regard. Finney, who led the state for one term from 1991 to 1995, worked to set up state-tribal gaming compacts. A painting of Finney hangs high above the entrance to the casino, a few feet above the tribal leaders — it’s the only portrait with a wine-red backdrop and its own spotlight. She has high, permed hair and looks remarkably young (Finney died of liver cancer in 2001), tucked into a one-piece buck dress, her legs folded beneath her as she smiles in a green field at sunset.

It might have been Finney’s friendship with Steve Cadue that earned her a place of honor opposite the electronic bingo board. Cadue is sometimes the chairman of the Kickapoo Tribal Council; he’s held the office 10 times over 30 years. Decorating the Kickapoo administrative offices (composed of a few trailers across the street from the treatment plant) are pictures of him posing with the Clintons and shaking hands with Nancy Pelosi at the Democrat’s January inauguration as Speaker of the House. Cadue wears cowboy shirts and a large, white hearing aid.

Cadue has been pushing for the reservoir since the water treatment plant was built in the mid-’70s, knowing then that the plant was a temporary solution to much bigger water problems.

The Kickapoo reservation isn’t wealthy, but it is self-sustaining. Fewer than 800 tribal members live there. Perhaps a dozen live in each of 160 one-story houses built by the tribe’s construction company. It’s the only dry reservation in Kansas, refusing alcohol service even at the casino’s Dream Catcher Café, though cans of cheap beer scattered along the banks of the Delaware suggest that at least a few Indians enjoy a drink now and again.

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To grow, the reservation needs water. There’s a long waiting list of families who want to move onto the reservation, but there’s nowhere for them to live. The tribe can’t get federal grants to build more housing because it can’t guarantee water for the residences. The river is so dry that the treatment plant can’t adequately filter the water it does pull. What comes out of the taps, if it’s allowed to settle, is flecked with dark globules. Indians who can afford it drink bottled water.

Cadue talks about arson and the possibility that reservation water might make his people sick. Remembering the summer drought of 2003 makes him visibly upset. Back then, the tribe bused in tanker trucks of water from nearby Horton but not enough to wash dishes for diners at the casino’s café.

“We had to serve them on paper plates,” Cadue says. “That’s our business. Who’s going to want to come back to eat off of paper plates?”

Besides lobbying politicians and local government leaders, he has appeared in at least two films the tribe has made urging the federal government to step in and seize land for the Kickapoo. To him, there’s no mystery why the project has stalled.

“White man’s greed,” he says. “Because there are white landowners on that board.”

Once, the Kickapoo tried to install one of their own on the water board. But the whites outmaneuvered them.

It was late 2005, and two seats were open. Tribal lawyer Williams went with two men, including Indian candidate Danny Simon, to the election meeting.

It was in the basement of a church. The board members were arranged at one end, seated at cheap folding tables. The audience sat in rows of steel chairs. Jesus was portrayed in a tapestry along one wall.

To become a board member, you must own land in a specific area of the Nemaha-Brown watershed district, which Simon did. Attendance at the meetings was usually sparse, and Williams and Simon had brought along a handful of Kickapoo women to add a few votes for Simon. They expected little opposition.

Rodney Lierz sat up front, on the board. Linda Lierz was among the spectators.

The first sign that something was wrong was the way the attendees segregated themselves. When the Indians sat down, the whites got up and moved to the opposite end of the room.

The second sign was when the cops showed up.

Williams says farmers started calling other farmers and telling them to come down to the church because a Kickapoo might get on the board. “So all of a sudden, all these people were appearing at the meeting,” Williams says. “And we saw the police there, and we were told they were called to control any disturbances.”

Williams found it unlikely that the Indian women he’d brought along, several of whom were old enough to qualify for Social Security payments, could start any trouble. But he kept his mouth shut.

Linda Lierz, who takes credit for calling the cops, says the patrolmen weren’t there to quash an Indian uprising but to protect her family. A week earlier, she tells the Pitch, they’d received an anonymous letter, which she still keeps in a Ziploc bag. The handwriting is carefully printed, as if by a moderately bright first-grader:

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Cry Baby Lierz,

The U.S. government. guaranteed the Indians water rights in 1854 you little prick head. Think your more important than they? Your biggest asshole in Brown County. Wake up before your run out of Brown County. Your nothing but a liar and a cheat so wake up while you have a chance.

The sheriff Lierz called to come to that meeting has since died. But the current Nemaha County sheriff, Richard Vernon, was on duty at the meeting that night. His assignment, he says, was to keep things in check if tempers flared.

After the Indians presented Simon as their candidate, the farmers needed someone to run for their side. Several men were nominated, but each time, the board apologetically declined the candidate because he didn’t own land in the right place. It took half a dozen nominations before the farmers found a candidate who was qualified.

As board members were examining the rules, they discovered that Simon didn’t own land in the proper district for his board seat. Another seat, an at-large post that Simon would have qualified for, was open — but that election wouldn’t be on the docket until the next meeting.

“They all cheered,” Williams says. “It was pretty blatant. And we didn’t see the point of staying around, so we left.”

A few moments after Williams and Simon left, though, the board decided they’d been wrong again. They had a few moments to squeeze in that at-large election after all.

Linda Lierz denies that anyone did anything underhanded.

Besides, racial tension is a part of living in the Brown and Nemaha counties.

“I was talking to my banker about this the other day, and he told me, ‘They’re red men. We’re white men. There’s always going to be a problem,'” says Lierz, who is from St. Louis. “I’d never thought about it like that before, but it’s the truth.”
Getting along is rule No. 1 when it comes to the incestuous nature of small-town politics. Anytime you step into a city council meeting, you watch your mouth, because the people you deal with are your neighbors, your family and your business partners. There’s no point in pretending that conflicts of interest don’t exist — such as Rodney Lierz’s position on the water board, which allows him to vote on a decision that will directly affect his livelihood.

“Is it a conflict? Sure it is, if we vote on it,” says Dexter Davis, a lifelong farmer who is president of the Nemaha-Brown Water Board. “And when it comes to a vote, if it does, he can vote on it if he wants to, but that’s either legal or it isn’t. That’s something the lawyers will have to deal with.”

Board member Roger Ploeger’s mother owns another parcel of land needed for the Kickapoo reservoir. Board member Wayne Hineger rents some of the land for his own farming operation.

But not every white person in Brown County is against the Kickapoo reservoir. With fewer than 2,000 people, the town of Horton is a sudden speed trap on Highway 20, where the Super Store gas station bills itself as home of the cheapest unleaded — and the best fried chicken — in town. Most Horton residents end their formal educations with high school diplomas, and quite a few work at the Golden Eagle Casino.

In fact, the casino is the biggest employer in Brown County. Emily Conklin estimates that at least 70 percent of its workers are not tribe members.

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“If the Kickapoo picked up and left today, tomorrow we’d be the poorest county in the state,” says Dale White, a lifelong Horton resident who, until early April, was Horton’s mayor. White is also CEO of the Northeast Kansas Center for Health and Wellness and the acting administrator of Tri-County Manor nursing home.

In his four years as mayor, White was particularly responsive to Kickapoo tribal leaders. White says he was the first Horton mayor to have a sit-down meeting with the tribal council about the future of the two communities. And on several occasions, he flew with Cadue to Washington, D.C., to plead the Indians’ case before legislators.

Two years ago, the Horton City Council made the sympathetic gesture of passing a resolution urging the water board to use its power of eminent domain to claim land for the reservoir.

“It’s just a self-evident thing to do,” White says. “They’re neighbors, and there’s intermarriage. We, of course, recognize their contributions to the economy, particularly now with the casinos Native Americans have added.”

The casino may have given the citizens of Horton a reason to play nice. Before the Indians became the biggest employers in his county a decade ago, White says, they didn’t get much support over the decades they were conducting ecological studies, reviewing land uses and completing building plans, all of which led to a mid-’90s agreement with the farmers who were on the water board back then. The Kickapoo say that agreement promised them the power to claim land through eminent domain, if necessary. Newspaper clippings from those years show politicians giving leaders such as Steve Cadue a smile and a firm handshake in support of the project. Landowners, however, presented environmental studies to show that the tribe could drill for water on other land. And with water levels falling, it became more difficult to clean the sludge pulled out of the river by the tribe’s treatment plant.

In 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent notices to reservation residents that long-term exposure to the water could result in certain cancerous growths. But such notices weren’t unique to the Kickapoo residents — the EPA sent the same letters to dozens of communities in Kansas as a result of a change in water regulations.

Considering his work in healthcare administration, White would seem a knowledgeable source on whether the Kickapoo water situation presents a risk, but he says he doesn’t feel qualified to discuss that.

“You go to the reservation and look at it,” he says. “Stand on the edge of the river and draw your own conclusions. It’s a Third World water supply, not something you’d see in the U.S. But, no, I don’t hear medical complaints.”

Mainly, complaints have to do with the sovereign reservation’s fire station, which has a dismal risk-assessment rating from insurance underwriters because of its inability to fight fires. The Indians say the low water supply prevents them from getting enough water pressure — that’s one of the main arguments in favor of a reservoir. But most other fire stations in eastern Kansas have poor ratings for one reason or another, such as communication systems, staffing, equipment and water supply. And the Hiawatha and Fairview fire departments, which also respond to tribal calls, say the Kickapoo are no worse off than they are. The departments all cooperate; each responds to every emergency. All are volunteer operations.

“They don’t have any problems. They just needed to build their system better. It’s all backwards,” says Gary Shear, Hiawatha fire chief. “They’ve got a nicer truck than I got. And that’s all that matters because most of their firefighting is out in the country, where you don’t have any hydrants. All that matters is how much you can haul.”

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Despite the shiny truck, the Kickapoo still need help from the other fire departments because someone is trying to burn them out.

Late on the night of March 10, someone started five more fires across the reservation. No one was injured, but the fires destroyed at least $500,000 in farm equipment.

The fresh burns have only added to worries that, in the struggle over the reservoir, someone’s going to get seriously hurt.

“You hope it’s kids being dumb, but there’s a lot of fear there, too,” Williams says. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is investigating, and, this time, Williams expects arrests. “I can’t say much about an investigation, but I can say that this time we’ve got some DNA evidence. We’ll know who it is eventually.”

Linda Lierz has her own theory.

“My opinion is that they’re doing it to themselves. Poor, poor me,” she says. “They just want the sympathy.”

She says she has heard stories about Indians shooting at farm animals from the highway and lighting bails of hay on fire and throwing them at homes.

She describes herself as the landowner with the loudest mouth, but, considering how she worries over her image in town, she might also be the landowner with the thinnest skin. She says she doesn’t miss St. Louis, except for the shopping, and has no desire to move to Horton or Hiawatha. Too many bankers’ wives and judgmental people.

“I’m sure they talk about me,” Linda says. “Why the holdup? All that. I don’t want to deal with it.”

What she will deal with, however, is all the legal scrapping. She sees no way to compromise, and if the Kickapoo win, she promises she’ll find a way to appeal the decision.

“They say they need this and ‘this should be ours to begin with.’ Hello! That’s a big red flag for land-grabbers.”
Though they might not be as blunt as Linda Lierz, for most of the property owners this is a case of racist, immoral Indians trying to steal their land. Dexter Davis, the water board president, says the Kickapoo haven’t approached landowners in the proper manner or made offers to the 12 landowners who would need to sell.

Evidence shows, however, that Davis either has been misled by the landowners or is lying.

The Kickapoo have a series of letters, dating back to 2005, offering what they say is a fair price for the land, based on an appraiser’s assessment. All of the letters close with a willingness to entertain counteroffers. Landowners interviewed for this story all said that tribal members had approached them personally.

The problem is that each side has a drastically different idea of bargaining etiquette. When the Indians offer a price, they do it with the expectation that the landowners will come back with a counteroffer. The landowners expect the Indians to know what the landowners want to begin with.

Marge Pallesen has 30 of the acres necessary for the project. She says that when the Kickapoo met with her, she didn’t see any reason to bargain with them.

“They just sat there quietly. You know that picture you get of how Native Americans sit there quietly? That’s the way it was,” Pallesen says. “It seems to me they were very single-minded. They wanted it, and that’s the way it was going to be.”

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Besides, Pallesen says, the Indians display their own racism in their argument that because the land was theirs to begin with, it should be theirs now. “We were brought into this innocent,” she says. “It sounds like prejudice on their part.”

The four landowners interviewed for this story believed the Indians’ initial offer of $1,300 to $1,500 per acre was an insult, too low for a counteroffer. All admitted that similar land often goes for only a few hundred dollars more at auction, but they claim that the costs of moving their farming operations, or the taxes they would need to pay on the sale, warrant more than double the offered amounts.

To date, the only person to sell any land for the reservoir is a 62-year-old Nebraskan named Larry Stuckey, whose 250 acres make up 25 percent of the needed land. He says the Indians offered him a good price. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” he says. “Personally, I think if the rest of them sold, after the project went through, the value of [the rest of] their land would go up. I’m not going to say who, but I did have one of them come to me and try and convince me not to sell.”

Stuckey knows that the other landowners view him as an outsider, an absentee landlord, the bad guy.

The others have no intention of selling.

“The land’s never been for sale. It’d hurt our farming operation, and there’s some emotional investment there because we’ve had it so long,” says Roger Ploeger, who spoke on behalf of his mother. “I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that.”

When asked why the Indians can’t understand that people feel an emotional investment in their ancestors’ property, Emily Conklin takes a moment, in shocked silence, before she responds.

“It was ours first, and it should never have been theirs to begin with,” she says. “We want justice.”

The Indians’ argument that their land was unfairly taken from them has no sway in Linda Lierz’s kitchen. She says her family comes by its land honestly. An Indian sold it to the railroad, she says, and Rodney’s grandfather bought it from the railroad. Rodney’s grandfather built their home and, later, died at his deer-hunting stand where the property meets the forest — a spot that would be underwater if the Indians had their way.

Behind her, bouncing toward the door, is Linda’s 2-year-old daughter, swinging a yellow cattle prod by its business end. “You’ll shock yourself,” Linda says. The kid starts using it as a cane instead.

She views sympathy for the Indians’ cause as useless white guilt. How long should hurt feelings last, anyway?

“It’s been a hundred years! Get over it,” Linda says. “[Kansas Sen.] Sam Brownback apologized for me, all right? He passed legislation apologizing, right? Good. Then I’m done!”

Sometimes Linda has visions. She walks onto the porch and looks out over the land and sees a lake instead. She cries after Rodney has gone to sleep.

But she isn’t fighting just for the family home. She sees nearly 2 million Indians — the current population of American Indians in the United States — waiting, biding their time, before they can drive a bulldozer to anyone’s front door and wave a federal condemnation order.

“My fear is, this is setting a precedent,” Linda says. “If they win, every other Indian tribe in the U.S. is going to go after land by eminent-domaining it. This won’t just stop with this.”

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