Aug 13 (Reuters) - Oglala Sioux Tribe members voting on Tuesday on whether to end a widely-ignored prohibition on alcohol at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota will have to wait to learn the outcome, after initial results were too close to call.
Unofficial results showed a 151-vote margin favoring lifting the prohibition with 438 challenge ballots still to be sorted. Challenge ballots can be cast when a member lacks proper identification at the polls, is voting in a different precinct or for other reasons.
The election committee will have to work through those challenge ballots starting on Wednesday, tribe spokeswoman Toni Red Cloud said.
Tribe members voted 1,645 to 1,494 in favor of lifting the prohibition, according to unofficial results, not counting the challenge votes. If the vote stands, the tribal council will decide how alcohol will be regulated in the community.
The Pine Ridge Reservation was established in 1889 and has prohibited the possession, sale and consumption of alcohol for all but a brief period in the early 1970s. The tribe has more than 43,000 members and the U.S. Census lists the reservation's Indian population at about 17,000.
The law prohibiting alcohol is widely flouted on the reservation, one of the poorest areas in the United States, and liquor stores in an unincorporated town just south of the reservation in Nebraska sell enormous amounts of alcohol.
Whiteclay, Nebraska, has about a dozen residents and four liquor stores. The stores sold the equivalent of about 162,153 cases of beer in 2012, according to the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.
Tribal leaders coping with rampant alcohol abuse asked a federal judge in 2012 to block the Whiteclay liquor store owners and liquor distributors from continuing what they said was illegal open and notorious liquor sales.
However, Judge John Gerrard dismissed the lawsuit in October 2012, finding that the tribe's claims did not involve questions of federal law, while adding, "There is, in fact, little question that alcohol sold in Whiteclay contributes significantly to tragic conditions on the Reservation."
In 2009, chronic liver disease was the fifth leading cause of death for all American Indian/Alaska Native men, and the second leading cause of death for men ages 35 to 44, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest spots in the country, according to the U.S. Census. Shannon County, which lies entirely within the reservation's borders, is the third poorest county in the country, according to Census data. (Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Catherine Evans)