Native Americans on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation have voted to end prohibition and legalize alcohol so the tribe can use the profits for education and treatment.
A majority of voters on Tuesday approved the measure, but the outcome was left hanging because of 438 challenged ballots that were more than the difference between the yes and no votes.
Francis Pumpkin Seed, Oglala Sioux Tribe Election Commission chairman, said workers on Wednesday checked each of those ballots to confirm they were cast by registered voters living on the reservation. After that process was complete, the result was 1,843 for legalization and 1,683 against it, he said.
Under the measure, the tribe will own and operate stores on the reservation, and profits will be used for education about the ills of alcohol abuse and detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
Critics said legalization will only exacerbate the reservation's troubles. Alcohol is blamed for some of the highest rates of domestic abuse, suicide, infant mortality, unemployment and violent crime in Indian Country.
Both sides in the debate agree something must be done to limit the scourge of alcohol on the Lakota people. They also share a goal of putting out of business the current main suppliers of booze — four stores in Whiteclay, Neb., two miles south of Pine Ridge, that sell millions of cans of beer a year.
Many tribal members live on Whiteclay's barren streets to avoid arrest on the reservation for being drunk.
Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on Native American reservations unless the tribal council allows it. Pine Ridge legalized alcohol for two months in the 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.
A 14-page tribal council draft of the law offers no specifics about funding or required qualifications for the people who would run the operation. The proposed law calls for a new department and a full-time director to administer and enforce the law. A new commission comprised of nine members, one from each reservation district, also would be created to guide the director, buy the alcohol, open and operate the liquor stores, hire employees, and investigate violations.
Tribal leaders acknowledge there are problems with the document that need to be resolved, and it will be debated and amended before taking effect.