Few Indian families are getting conventional mortgages for homes on reservations, a problem blamed on the reluctance of bankers to do business on Indian land because they are not certain they can foreclose if necessary.

A report from the General Accounting Office, the investigatory arm of Congress, found only 91 Indians nationwide received conventional mortgage loans for homes on reservation land between 1992 and 1996. Eighty of those loans went to two tribes in Washington and Wisconsin.The GAO found private loans guaranteed by the federal government did not fare any better - only 128 federally guaranteed private loans went to Indians on trust land between 1983, when the programs were enacted, and 1997.

Housing shortages and poor housing are rife on tribal land. The GAO said 40 percent of people on tribal land live in overcrowded or inadequate housing.

"One of our biggest problems is we have multiple families living under one roof," said Daryl Whitegeese, housing chairman at Pojoaque Pueblo, which has families on waiting lists for homes.

But even if private mortgage financing were readily available, many Indians on reservations do not qualify due to low incomes or inadequate credit histories.

"Our problem isn't only the lenders, we have a lot of people who are ready to help," Whitegeese said. "What we've run into are credit barriers. A lot of tribal members aren't used to valuing money in the same way as people off reservations. So we're working with counselors to help members with credit problems and to help them with financial planning for the future."

The GAO report said lenders have difficulty understanding the complex status of Indian trust lands and are unfamiliar with tribal courts in which foreclosure litigation is conducted.

Few tribes have enacted housing ordinances governing foreclosures on tribal land, adding to the hesitation of bankers to make conventional mortgage loans, the report said. Conventional loans are made by private lenders without federal assistance, such as federal loan insurance or guarantees.

Indian trust land generally cannot be transferred to non-Indians without approval of the secretary of the Interior Department, which prevents Indians from using trust land as collateral for mortgage loans.

"Bankers want protection from undue risk," said Christopher Boesen, executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council. "They don't want to end up with a foreclosure when they can't get to a property."