PINE RIDGE, S.D. — A reported threat prompted tribal leaders to move the location of ballot counting Tuesday in a referendum on whether to allow alcohol sales across a large Indian reservation in South Dakota.
Residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, the only American Indian territory in the state that remains dry, are deeply divided between those who want to capitalize on alcohol profits currently enjoyed only by bootleggers and those who fear legalization would just make the problems worse.
Francis Pumpkin Seed, election commission chairman, said protesters operating a camp in the nearby border town of Whiteclay, Neb., demonstrated against legalization Monday at tribal headquarters in Pine Ridge. They also threatened to disrupt voting, so tribal police and election monitors on Tuesday watched over the nine polling places on the reservation, he said.
Ballot counting also will move from the election building in Pine Ridge to the nearby Billy Mills community center, as a precaution, Pumpkin Seed said.
"We're not going to allow disruptions," he said, adding that no actual violence had been reported. "Mills will be under lock and key and police will be guarding it."
Demonstrator Misty Sioux Little Davis said the group did rally against legalization but did not make any threats.
"We didn't disrupt nothing," she said. "We had a rally and a walk from the hospital to the tribal building across the street. We just did a rally there. We demonstrated to encourage people to vote no to alcohol."
People stood in line before polls opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and turnout appeared to be good, Pumpkin Seed said. A high number of absentee ballots also have been filed, he said.
Of the 43,000 Oglala Sioux Tribe members, about 26,000, including a large number of children, live on the reservation that's larger in size than Delaware. Only tribal members 18 and older who live on the reservation can vote, though those who have moved away but haven't updated their addresses might still vote, he said. The tribe has distributed 4,000 ballots, and that would represent a good turnout.
Bryan Brewer, the tribe president, said Wednesday he was hearing a lot of comments from people on both sides of the issue, so the outcome likely will be close.
"There's been a lot of talk about it on social media, Facebook and everything else. I'm expecting a good turnout today. I think more than usual, just because of the topic and the good weather," said Brewer, who opposes legalization.
Larry Eagle Bull, one of the tribal council members who supports the measure, agreed.
"To me, it sounds like it's pretty much split right now, just by word of mouth," he said.
Pine Ridge is the last South Dakota reservation where alcohol is illegal. It's unclear how many reservations nationwide are still dry. If Tuesday's measure passes, profits from alcohol sales would be used for education, detoxification and treatment centers, for which there is currently little to no funding.
"Alcohol is here. They're kidding themselves if they think we're a dry reservation," said Eagle Bull, himself a recovering alcoholic. "Prohibition is not working. Alcohol is going to stay. We need to get our people educated about it."
Critics said legalization would 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 for tribal members — four stores in Whiteclay, 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.
The stores have posted fliers urging customers to contact their tribal council representative if they don't want the businesses to close.
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 1970s, but the ban was quickly restored. An attempt to lift prohibition in 2004 also failed.
Pumpkin Seed said those failures were likely due to a generation gap.
"A lot of the older people are against alcohol, so they've always voted no. Now you're getting a younger generation and a lot of them are wanting to legalize alcohol," he said.
Opponents of the latest effort believe a vote in favor of legal sales is a vote for alcoholism.
"It's destroying our families and children," Brewer said. "It's affected every family on the reservation. If it's legal, I anticipate the use will go up. Abuse of women and children will go up. A lot of people are saying we'll have all this money for treatment, and that's not true."