Story highlights

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota votes to lift an alcohol ban

The decades-old ban stirs debate among members of the Oglala Sioux tribe

If the ban is lifted, stores can open on the reservation, taking business from a nearby town

CNN —  

An Indian reservation in South Dakota voted to repeal a decades-old ban on alcohol, according to preliminary results announced by the Oglala Sioux Tribe Wednesday.

The unofficial tally from Tuesday’s vote at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation shows that 1,645 members voted in favor of lifting the ban, 1,494 voted against and 438 votes were challenged.

“Challenge votes are being counted and will be released as soon as they are received from the election committee,” the Oglala Lakota Nation website said.

Pine Ridge is the last dry reservation in the state.

The debate about allowing alcohol on the reservation divided the community.

The ban, in effect for decades, prohibits the possession and consumption of alcohol on the reservation. But the ban wasn’t working, Lawrence Eagle Bull, one of nine Oglala tribal council members who agreed to put the issue to a vote, said before the balloting.

Eagle Bull compared the situation to the United States’ Prohibition era. “It didn’t work then,” he said. “It created a criminal element.”

Others were firm in their commitment to keep the land dry, saying legalizing alcohol would solve nothing.

“Alcohol is behind every social problem we have,” said activist and tribe member Olowan Martinez. “It’s our biggest enemy – legalizing it won’t solve the problem.”

She cites problems such as domestic abuse, assault, rape and unemployment. She added that drinking is killing the population: “It’s liquid genocide.”

What both sides agree on is that alcohol abuse is common on the reservation and beer is easy to get.

The neighboring border town of Whiteclay , Nebraska, is home to fewer than 15 residents but supports four beer stores that manage to sell 11,000 cans of beer a day to their predominately Native American customer base. The reservation has a tribal membership of more than 35,000 people, according to the Oglala Lakota Nation website.

Many of those who purchase beer in Whiteclay drink it there and return to the reservation drunk. Other times the beer is smuggled into the reservation.

If the vote holds up and the ban is lifted, the tribe would be able to establish its own beer stores on the reservation. Eagle Bull says each district would house one store – operated by the tribe – with profits going toward alcohol rehabilitation facilities. In the long term, Eagle Bull said, stores on the reservation could eventually shut down the Whiteclay operations.