FARMINGTON — The Oglala Sioux Tribe cast votes Tuesday that could have implications for tribal governments across the United States, including the Navajo Nation.
A majority of residents on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation appear to have voted in favor of overturning a 124-year-old alcohol prohibition. The unofficial count -- 1,645 in favor of allowing alcohol on the reservation and 1,494 against it -- is too close to call, according to The Associated Press.
A number of the votes have been challenged, however, and an official result could take days to verify.
The reservation is the eighth largest in the country and has been plagued by alcoholism, poverty and other issues for decades.
Oglala Sioux officials hope to build education, detoxification and treatment centers with tax revenue from alcohol sales.
Navajo Nation officials say they are tracking the situation. But they said that lifting the prohibition on alcohol on the Navajo Nation is not an option.
American Indians and Alaska Natives die from alcoholism at a rate 514 percent higher than other Americans, according to Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim's address to the New Mexico Senate's Health and Human Services Committee meeting in June 2012.
Although alcohol is illegal on the Navajo Nation, residents in cities and communities such as Shiprock can buy alcohol just a few miles away in so-called border towns like Hogback, Farmington and Gallup.
"I've been up there many times, and I'm familiar with the issues that plague (the reservation)," said Russell Begaye, Navajo Nation Council Delegate for Shiprock. "We've consistently voted down proposals to legalize. We do have bootlegging, but more than 80 percent of crimes here involve alcohol."
Crime on the Navajo Reservation is often exacerbated by alcohol abuse, he said.
"We don't have enough prosecutors to deal with the alcohol problems," Begaye said. "We don't have enough police officers."
Although some may want the alcohol ban on the Navajo Nation to be lifted, Begaye says keeping a lid on crime is the priority and legalization is not the answer.
Totah Behavioral Health in Farmington is one social service organization geared toward serving Navajo alcoholics.
Board member George Francis agreed that legalization is not an option for the Navajo Nation.
"Pouring fuel on the fire only makes it bigger," he said. "In the long run, it will create a new cycle of drinking. We need to be careful and search for the root issue."
Some Shiprock residents say they think there is no solution to alcohol abuse on the reservation.
"I see a lot of people hitchhiking to get (liquor)," said 28-year-old Duane Juan, who lives just south of Shiprock. "They'll get it. If they legalize, it there will be more trouble here for people that don't drink."
One Shiprock resident, Laverne, who did not want to use her last name, said that she sees drinkers gathering on street corners and young women getting into different cars every day. She speculates that some people even resort to prostitution to fuel their alcohol habit.
"If they can't get liquor then they drink mouthwash, hand sanitizer -- whatever will get them high," she said. "(Legalization) isn't going to do anything. People can talk all they want, but I don't think anything's going to change while alcohol is sold down the road."