(Reuters) - Oglala Sioux Tribe members have voted to end a widely ignored prohibition on alcohol at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas in the United States.
Tribe members voted 1,871 to 1,679 to end prohibition on the expansive reservation, spokeswoman Toni Red Cloud said on Wednesday.
Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1889 and has prohibited the possession, sale and consumption of alcohol for all but a brief period in the early 1970s. The tribal council must decide next how to regulate alcohol in the community.
Voting in the special referendum on Tuesday was closely divided and unofficial results on the first night had shown a 151-vote margin in favor of lifting the ban. An election committee sorted hundreds of challenge ballots on Wednesday.
Challenge ballots could be cast if a member lacked proper identification at the polls, were voting in a different precinct from their registration or for other reasons.
The law prohibiting alcohol has been widely flouted on the reservation and four liquor stores located a few feet south and just outside Pine Ridge in the unincorporated town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, sell large amounts of alcohol.
Whiteclay has about a dozen residents and its liquor stores sold the equivalent of 162,100 cases of beer in 2012, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
Tribal leaders coping with alcohol abuse asked a federal judge in 2012 to block liquor sales in Whiteclay. The judge found the claims did not involve federal law and dismissed the lawsuit in October 2012.
Judge John Gerrard said: “There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the Reservation.”
Pine Ridge is the last “dry” reservation in South Dakota. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has about 43,000 members and the U.S. Census lists the American Indian population on the reservation at about 17,000.
A proposed draft ordinance circulated before Tuesday’s vote outlined a tribe monopoly on alcohol importation and sales on the reservation with a new government department to organize tribe-run liquor stores.
The proposal called for directing liquor sales profits to set up two full-service detoxification centers and for programs for treatment, counseling and related services for residents suffering the negative consequences of alcohol abuse.
In 2009, chronic liver disease was the fifth leading cause of death for all American Indian/Alaska Native men, and the second leading cause of death for men aged 35 to 44, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest spots in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Shannon County, which lies entirely within the reservation’s borders, is the third poorest county in the country, according to Census data.
Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Elizabeth Piper