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Native Americans living on tribal land have struggled to access veteran home loans

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The GI Bill has a mythic significance in American history. Generations of veterans got educations and easy home loans; you know, the kinds of things that pull families up into the middle class. But that benefit has never really been available to one group of Americans who serve in very high numbers - Native Americans living on tribal land. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Lame Deer, Mont.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: There's no VA office on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, but the tribe does have a veterans benefits coordinator.

JEANIE BEARTUSK: You know, so right now, I think I have about 178 veterans.

LAWRENCE: Jeanie Beartusk met me in the basement of the Mennonite Church in Lame Deer. She had set up snacks and refreshments and gathered a bunch of Northern Cheyenne veterans so I could ask about their benefits. When I got there, though, it had been so long since they'd seen anyone from VA, they had questions for me.

OK.

MILFORD CURTIS SR: What I wanted to ask you...

LAWRENCE: Yeah.

CURTIS: ...About education and housing, if I'm eligible for it. I'm getting old. If I can get a home somewhere, I'd like to get a home.

DOREEN WHITE: I would be interested in a home loan because this is, like I said, this is my homeland. I'm pretty sure we're going to be here for quite a while.

MANFORD SOLDIER WOLF: Well, like I said, I just got basically given up on, you know?

LAWRENCE: That was Vietnam vet Manford Soldier Wolf saying he's given up on VA. Before him, you heard Army vets Milford Curtis Sr. and Doreen White. Their tribal benefits coordinator, Jeanie Beartusk, says it's a simple fact - no bank will finance a GI Bill home loan on tribal land.

BEARTUSK: I tried to explain it as best as I could. You know, I can't bend the rules.

LAWRENCE: That's because the banks can't take back tribal land if the loan defaults. This isn't new. Congress tried to fix this problem 30 years ago. In 1992, it created the Native American Direct Loan so the VA can work directly with the tribe to finance the home.

BILL SHEAR: But the numbers are tiny.

LAWRENCE: Bill Shear, with the Government Accountability Office, recently did a report. He found that in the continental U.S., the VA has used this direct loan just 89 times in the past decade. Outreach by the VA gets less than 1% of eligible Native vets, Shear says.

SHEAR: Well, and this would be an example of how badly can a government program run?

LAWRENCE: He says the VA doesn't collect good data about the results and doesn't seem to know its own manuals are out of date, referencing offices that don't exist anymore. Also, VA can't legally make a loan until it has a memorandum of understanding with each tribe, an MOU. That takes action from the tribes, but also outreach from VA. Bryant Lacey, who oversees the Native American Direct Loan at VA, says there are MOUs with only a fraction of the nearly 600 tribes in the United States.

BRYANT LACEY: So right now, we're only capable of hitting nearly 20% of these federally recognized tribes with the VA program. So we are really focused on engaging with tribes that do not have these memorandums of understanding with us.

LAWRENCE: Lacey has read the critical GAO report, and he says the VA is already working on solutions.

LACEY: October 1, 2021, we created a Native American Direct Loan team that is solely dedicated to processing the Native American Direct Loan Program.

LAWRENCE: Lacey confirmed that the Northern Cheyenne tribe is one of the few that already has an MOU to use the direct loan. That was news to the veterans I met on the reservation.

Did you ever hear about the Native American Direct Loan?

HENRY SPEELMAN: No, I haven't. Never did hear of a direct loan.

LAWRENCE: Henry Speelman is a former Marine and member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council. He came out to the meeting at the Mennonite church, and then he took me back to the house he's renting on the reservation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATTLE GATE CLANGING)

LAWRENCE: There's a cattle gate at the end of his driveway to keep the horses and cows in the pasture. Above it, Speelman's house looks out over the low hills and those otherworldly sandstone formations of eastern Montana. Speelman could maybe get a regular VA home loan, but only to buy a house off the reservation. He doesn't want to.

SPEELMAN: It's our stronghold. We were born and raised here, so it's just not enough sense of - feel safe here.

LAWRENCE: Deer visit the backyard almost every night, and the occasional black bear. A few grandkids live with him. One of them rides the quarter horses grazing out front.

SPEELMAN: And as chaotic as it is, it's still home. And - I don't know - it's just where I want to be.

LAWRENCE: Speelman thinks the owner of this house will sell it to him, but he needs a loan. Despite several government programs designed to make that happen, he can't seem to get one.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Lame Deer, Mont., on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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