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Senate Hears Testimony On Roadblocks To Tribal Housing

U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
Fort Belknap Council Member, Nathaniel Mount, during a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on Wednesday October 16, 2019.

A Fort Belknap council member briefed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Wednesday about roadblocks to homeownership.

Three years. That’s how long Nathaniel Mount, council member for the Fort Belknap Indian Community, says it takes for families to get off of the waiting list for tribal housing.

Access to safe and affordable housing is a problem across Indian country. Tribal members looking for housing have to deal with complications over land ownership, barriers to private mortgages and lots and lots of waiting.

Here’s how Mount told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs about how the lack of housing has affected his life, when he came home to the Fort Belknap Reservation after law school

"I had to go and live with my parents. I had to move in with my parents because I couldn’t find any housing. There’s no housing on our Reservation," Mount said. 

He says there are more than 150 families on a waiting list for tribal housing on Fort Belknap.

What gets in the way of new development?

Mount says one of the biggest roadblocks for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes is getting federal approval to lease their lands and start building homes.

They need approval since most reservation lands are held in trust, meaning the federal government holds the title. The U.S. government holds over 56 million acres in trust for tribal nations across the country.

Tribes can apply to lease their land without prior approval from the Bureau of Indian Affairs under the 2009 HEARTH Act. Mount says that in August, the Tribes on Fort Belknap submitted an application to control their leasing process under the law, but haven’t heard back yet.

Here’s committee member, Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, pressing Darryl LaCounte, the Acting Director of the BIA, about Fort Belknap’s request.

"That is a real problem and a real frustration. Can I get some sort of commitment from you Darryl that you’ll see that they’ll get their approval ASAP?" Tester asked.

"Certainly. No, we’re going to address the hurdles that are there," LaCounte responded. 

Without approval of the HEARTH Act, Tribes can sometimes go through lengthy waiting periods for BIA approval to lease trust land, but Mount says it shouldn’t take more than 90-days.

"There is no 90-day timeframe. I ran that office. I gave them three days to put a title status report out," LaCounte said.

He oversaw that process early in his career out of the BIA’s Billings office.

Committee Member U.S. Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, says if LaCounte can get that done in three days, Mount might just want to take him out for dinner.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.