At the end of the 20th Century, it was estimated that the U.S. had close to 200,000 Native American veterans. Native Americans have served in the United States military since the earliest days of the nation. General George Washington wrote a letter in 1778 that includes the following quote:
“You will perceive by the inclosed Copy of a Resolve of Congress that I am empowered to employ a Body of four hundred Indians if they can be procured upon proper Terms…” Native American tribes fought in the War of 1812, they served with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in 1898, and the Civil War.
In 1916, Native Americans were involved in General John Pershing’s quest to find Pancho Villa, and they served in both World Wars plus other major conflicts in American history. The Native American / First Nations people have contributed a great deal to military history, and Native veterans are entitled to certain VA services and benefits not open to non-Native vets.
VA services for Native American veterans include specific benefits such as the Native American Direct Loan (NADL) program, but also outreach services such as the VA Office of Tribal Government Relations. What do Native American veterans need to know about the unique options open to them through the Department of Veterans Affairs?
VA Services For Native Veterans
The VA Office Of Tribal Government Relations (OTGR) is responsible for building and maintaining close ties between the Department of Veterans Affairs, tribal governments, and State/Federal agencies as well as private and non-profit concerns.
The VA’s state purpose in this includes the following areas:
- Facilitating VA’s Tribal Consultation Policy
- Facilitating increased access to health care
- Promoting economic sustainability
OGTR communicates with tribal leadership to raise awareness of its programs for Native veterans and the services offered to all vets. One way the VA does this is through Tribal Leader Letters that explain essential VA services, announce workshops and outreach campaigns, and provides VA benefit fact sheets.
VA Tribal Outreach Efforts
One excellent example of this type of outreach is found in a Tribal Outreach Letter from 2017, discussing VA healthcare for Native American veterans and non-native vets alike with presumptive disabilities:
“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is writing to ask tribal governments, interested in participating in a nationwide outreach campaign, to reply to this letter within 30 days receipt. The focus of the outreach campaign will be identifying and assisting Veterans across Indian Country with presumptive disabilities and Veterans who may have noncompensable disabilities (VA pension claims).”
The benefit for Native veterans in this particular outreach program included coordinating health fairs, screenings, teleconferences, on-site claims processing, and much more. “If your tribe is interested in participating in this focused outreach campaign, please reply…no later than 30 days from the date of this letter. VA will consider all tribes that express interest, and it will consult tribal leadership as it plans and coordinates all outreach events.”
The VA conducts such on-site and teleconference events for Native communities all across the United States. Look at the schedule for 2018 alone for an impressive amount of work between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the communities across what VA official literature sometimes describes as “Indian country”:
- May 2018 Osage Nation, Ponca City, OK
- May 2018 Navajo Nation, Tuba City, AZ
- May 2018 Navajo Nation, St Michaels, AZ
- May 2018 Copper River Native Association, Copper Center, AK
- May 2018 Kewa Pueblo, Kewa Fire Station, Santo Domingo Pueblo, NM
- May 2018 Tule River Tribe, Porterville, CA
- May 2018 Pueblo of Pojoaque, Pojoaque , NM
- June 2018 Native Village of White Mountain, Nome, AK
- June 2018 Navajo Nation, Crownpoint, NM
- June 2018 Nez Perce Tribe, Lapwai, ID
- June 2018 Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, Bayfield, WI
- June 2018 Navajo Nation, Chinle, AZ
- June 2018 Nooksack Indian Tribe, Deming, WA
- June 2018 Confederated Tribe of Siletz Indians, Lincoln City, OR
- June 2018 Navajo Nation, Flagstaff, AZ
- July 2018 Choctaw Nation of OK, McCalester, OK
- July 2018 Choctaw Nation of OK, Poteau, OK
- July 2018 Tohono O’odham, Sif-Oidak, AZ
- July 2018 Miami Nation of OK, Miami, OK
- August 2018 Bay Mills Indian Community, Brimley, MI
- August 2018 San Carlos Apache Tribe, Burdette Hall, San Carlos, AZ
- August 2018 White Earth Nation, Mahnomen, MN
- October 2018 Walker River Paiute Tribe, Schurz, NV
VA Tribal Consultation
The Department of Veterans Affairs also consults with tribal leaders about relevant topics including benefits, claims, and services; the agency also seeks feedback and input about VA policy and programs from Native American/First Nations leadership on a formal and informal basis.
A good example of this work occurred in 2016 when the VA consulted with American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments “on recognition of tribal organizations for representation of VA benefit claimants, the top three to five priorities for Veterans in Indian Country, and a proposed consolidation of non-VA care into a more standardized system under the Veterans Choice Program,” according to the official site.
The results of this were compiled into a special report that includes mention of an effort by the Department of Veterans Affairs to amend the Code of Federal Regulations to allow tribal organizations that meet certain criteria to represent Native American/First Nations veterans to claim VA benefits.
The proposed amendment would also allow tribal government employees “to pursue accreditation through existing State organizations.”
The 2016 outreach also included soliciting feedback from tribes about current VA “programming” with more than 70 responses from tribes, Native organizations, and individual respondents with over 20 priorities identified thanks to Native responses.
According to the VA, of some 23 priorities identified by the Native community, “13 priorities were part of VA’s current programming” plus additional concerns including:
- The VA Consolidated Care Plan
- Dental Care
- Urban Indians and Urban Indian Organizations
- Increasing VA’s Cultural Sensitivity
- Nursing Care for Veterans
- Substance Abuse Treatment
- Tribal Veterans Advisory Committee
- Tribal Veterans Cemeteries
- Veteran Status
The 2017 Final Rule On Native Accreditation
The 2017 Tribal Outreach Letter discussed earlier in this article was soon followed by a Final Rule “amending its regulations concerning recognition of certain national, State, and regional or local organizations for purposes of VA claims representation.” That final rule allows tribal organizations “established and funded by one or more tribal governments” to act on behalf of veterans seeking VA benefits and claims. The final rule also permits employees of tribal governments to become accredited in a similar fashion to Veterans’ Service Officers at non-native government organizations; it was a big step forward toward better Native representation in the VA claims and benefits process.
VA Benefits For Native American Veterans
Native American veterans have access to the same VA benefits and services as non-Native vets, but the Department of Veterans Affairs offers a unique program specifically for Native veterans in the form of the VA Native American Direct Loan program.
These loans are offered to eligible Native American Veterans “to finance the purchase, construction, or improvement of homes on Federal Trust Land.” These loans are also offered to refinance an existing Native American Direct Loan (also known as a VA NADL).
The VA NADL is unique even among VA loans for one important reason. Standard VA mortgages are handled by participating lenders and issued by them and not the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the VA Native American Direct Loan program is different; the VA directly lends the money from the agency to the veteran, hence the phrase “direct loan.”
The unique nature of this type of mortgage loan means special requirements apply that do not come into play when regular VA mortgage loans are processed. A VA NADL requires the VA and a tribal government must have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. This memorandum details the VA program and how it operates on trust lands.
Who Qualifies For A Native American Direct Loan?
In general, the VA loan benefit is unique in that servicemembers must have a minimum time in service which varies depending on the era when the veteran joined the military; this minimum guarantees access to the program only and is NOT considered home loan approval.
The same is true for Native American Direct Loans; the veteran must qualify for the program AND be able to financially qualify for the mortgage at loan application time the same as any other home loan including VA mortgages.
For both regular VA mortgages and the Native American Direct Loan, the borrower must have a valid Certificate of Eligibility (COE) with available VA loan entitlement as listed on the COE. The home loan applied for under the NADL program must be intended to buy, build, or improve a home “on Federally-recognized trust, allotted lands, Alaska Native corporations and Pacific Island territories” according to the VA official site.
Other Issues You Should Know About The VA Native American Direct Loan Program
- The borrower must occupy the property as the primary residence; no investment properties are permitted.
- The veteran must be a “satisfactory credit risk.”
- The veteran’s income “must be shown to be stable and sufficient to meet the mortgage payments” as well as cover the expense of owning property, maintaining other financial responsibilities, etc. This is a general requirement similar to the “regular” VA mortgage loan requirements for non-Native borrowers.
- No down payment is required in most cases.
- There is no Private Mortgage Insurance required.
- Maximum loan limits vary by location the same as with typical VA mortgages.
- The NADL program offers mortgages as 30-year fixed loans.
- These loans can be used to buy, build, or renovate a primary residence on Federal Trust Land.
VA Loan Funding Fee Issues With NADL
Native American veterans who qualify for the Native American Direct Loan Program must pay a VA funding fee in a similar fashion to ordinary VA mortgages; like those loans, certain Native American veterans may be exempt from having to pay this funding fee when the following applies:
- The veteran is receiving or eligible to receive VA compensation for service-connected medical issues; OR
- The veteran would be entitled to receive compensation for a service-connected disability if not for the receipt of retirement or active duty pay, OR
- The applicant is a surviving spouse of a Native American veteran who died in service or from a service-connected disability.
If a veteran applies for a Native American Direct Loan and has not received a VA determination as to a medical claim, the VA loan funding fee may be required as though the veteran did not have a claim.
Once the applicant’s VA records have been officially updated to include the status of a medical claim that could exempt the borrower from the VA loan funding fee the veteran can apply for a refund of the VA funding fee. The refunds are NOT automatic.
Learn More About The Native American Direct Loan Program
Contact the Department of Veterans Affairs at 1-877-827-3702 to learn more about NADL issues and how to qualify for these VA home loans.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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