LINCOLN — A referendum to allow alcohol sales on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota was leading in unofficial election returns Tuesday.
However, the outcome won’t be known for a couple of days due to the high number of challenged ballots in the hand-counted election.
The unofficial count late Tuesday was 1,645 in favor of allowing alcohol sales and 1,494 opposed.
But Oglala Sioux Tribal President Bryan Brewer said it may take a couple of days to determine if 438 challenged votes were cast by qualified voters — registered tribal members who live on the reservation.
“I’ve never seen the challenged votes overturn an election yet, but there’s so many, it might,” Brewer said.
The election split the tribe and spawned protests at some polling places Tuesday.
Opponents maintain that allowing liquor sales on the reservation will exacerbate already epidemic problems with alcohol. Advocates said alcohol sales would generate much-needed funds for the tribe to combat a problem that affects 80 percent of its families.
If liquor sales are allowed, it promises to cut into alcohol profits at the notorious town of Whiteclay, Neb., which sits just across the border from the officially dry reservation. Four stores there sells 4 million cans of beer a year, mostly to residents of the reservation.
Brewer opposes alcohol sales on the reservation. He said allowing them will only exacerbate alcohol-related problems among his people.
“There’s other ways to generate money,” Brewer said. “I hate that it’s alcohol. To me, it’s blood money.”
The Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that bans liquor.
Alcohol was legalized for two months back in the 1970s, but the experiment ended quickly. In 2004, the tribal council talked of scheduling a vote to end prohibition, but then backed off.
Proponents say profits and taxes from liquor sales on the Pine Ridge will generate money for the cash-strapped tribe to build education, detoxification and treatment centers.
Currently, there is one detox center with six beds on the reservation, which has 50,000 people.
“That is not meeting our needs. We need more money,” Brewer said.
On and off for years, there’s been talk of allowing liquor sales to increase revenue for the tribe and end the flow of traffic to the beer stores in Whiteclay. Another advantage: it might end bootlegging of liquor on the reservation.
Federal law bans the sale of alcohol on American Indian reservations unless the tribal council allows it.
Vic Clarke, a grocery store owner in Whiteclay, said that if the tribe does it right, with proper management, liquor sales at its casino and tribal stores could provide much-needed jobs and revenue, and inspire economic development.
But, Clarke predicted, it won’t close the Whiteclay beer stores because they sell cheaper cigarettes than available on the reservation and cash hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks because there are no banks on the reservation.
“They do other things than sell beer,” he said. “The beer stores will survive. Yes, it will cost them a little bit of business, but they’ll survive.”
The operator of a Christian soup kitchen in Whiteclay that ministers to the estimated 45 street people in town said legalizing alcohol on the reservation might force the tribe to confront its liquor woes.
“I think they’ll have to deal with it up front, instead of blaming the evil, wicked white men,” said Bruce Bonfleur, who operates the Lakota Hope center. “Now it’s up to us if we’re going to drink or not.’’
This report includes material from the Associated Press.