Native Americans living on tribal land struggle to access veteran home loans: NPR

The GI Bill has helped generations of veterans get education and easy home loans. But this benefit was never really available to Native Americans living on tribal lands.


The GI Bill has mythical significance in American history. Generations of veterans received an education and easy home loans; you know, the kind of stuff that pushes families towards the middle class. But that advantage has never really been available to a group of Americans who serve in overwhelming numbers – Native Americans living on tribal lands. NPR’s Quil Lawrence reports from Lame Deer, Mont.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: There is 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 Lame Deer Mennonite Church. She had set up snacks and refreshments and assembled a group of Northern Cheyenne veterans so I could ask about their benefits. When I got there, however, it had been so long since they had seen anyone from VA, they had some questions for me.


MILFORD CURTIS SR: What I wanted to ask you…


CURTIS: …About education and housing, if I’m entitled to it. I am getting old. If I can have a house somewhere, I would like to have a house.

DOREEN WHITE: I would be interested in a home loan because, as I said, this is my homeland. I’m sure we’ll be here for quite a while.

MANFORD PRIVATE WOLF: Well, like I said, I just gave up, you know?

LAWRENCE: It was Vietnamese vet Manford Soldier Wolf saying he had given up on VA. Before him, you’ve heard Army veterans Milford Curtis Sr. and Doreen White. Their Tribal Benefits Coordinator, Jeanie Beartusk, says it’s a simple fact — no bank will fund a GI Bill home loan on tribal land.

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

LAWRENCE: It’s because the banks can’t take back the tribal lands if the loan isn’t repaid. It’s not new. Congress tried to solve this problem 30 years ago. In 1992, he created the Native American Direct Loan so the VA could work directly with the tribe to finance the house.

BILL SHEAR: But the numbers are tiny.

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

SHEAR: Well, and that would be an example of a government program going wrong?

LAWRENCE: He says the VA doesn’t collect good outcome data and doesn’t seem to know that its own manuals are outdated, referring to offices that no longer exist. Also, VA cannot legally make a loan until it enters into a memorandum of understanding with each tribe, a memorandum of understanding. It takes action from the tribes, but also from VA outreach. Bryant Lacey, who oversees Native American Direct Lending at VA, says there are memorandums of understanding with only a fraction of the nearly 600 tribes in the United States.

BRYANT LACEY: So right now we’re only able to reach about 20% of those federally recognized tribes with the VA program. So we’re really focused on engaging with tribes that don’t have those MOUs with us.

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

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

LAWRENCE: Lacey confirmed that the Northern Cheyenne tribe is one of the few that already has a memorandum of understanding to use the direct loan. This was news to the veterans I met on the reservation.

Have you ever heard of the Native American direct loan?

HENRY SPEELMAN: No, I didn’t. I have never heard of a direct loan.

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


LAWRENCE: There’s a cattle gate at the end of his driveway to keep the horses and cows in the pasture. Above, Speelman’s house overlooks the low hills and those otherworldly sandstone formations of eastern Montana. Speelman might be able to get a regular VA home loan, but only to buy a home off the reservation. He does not want.

SPEELMAN: This is our stronghold. We were born and raised here, so it’s just not enough – to feel safe here.

LAWRENCE: Deer visit the garden most nights, and sometimes black bears. Several grandchildren live with him. One of them rides the quarter horses grazing in 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 is going to sell it to him, but he needs a loan. Despite several government programs designed to make this happen, he can’t seem to get one.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Lame Deer, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

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Nohemi M. Moore