WRONG FROM THE BEGINNING, we call them "Indians" -- a name that enshrines the mistake of European explorers who did not know which continent they had found. Under that name, we lump cultures as contrasting as those of Italy and Japan. The proud Kwakiutls of the Northwest, the gentle Pueblos, the fierce horsemen of the central plains, the mysterious Seminoles of Florida, the Creeks and Cherokees who once farmed and hunted in Georgia are all "Indians," and a common sentiment was expressed by Gen. Philip Sheridan when he said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

A better name for them might be that given in one of their own languages, "the Ani-Yun-Wiya," or the Real People. For all their deversity of language and culture, the orignal inhabitants of our nation had one thing in common which set them apart from the present rulers of the land: a harmony with their environment, an ability to use the land without scarring it, to relate to its cyclical changes in the patterns of their own lives, to pass through the forest without leaving a trace, metaphorically of physically. This ability assured their happiness and their survival as long as they lived unknown, in an environment protected by the oceans. Once that protection had been breached, the Indians' carefully developed harmony with natural cycles spelled their doom. A race of manipulators encontered a race of harmonizers, and the conclusion was as inevitable as it was harrowing.

The story of this encounter spans a whole hemisphere geographically and is now nearing the end of its fifth century. Only a small part of it can be told in Dee Brown's epic, although its time-span is from the colonial era to the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. Brown (the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) keeps a tight focus in this fictional study, restricting his story to the life and descendants of a single woman, Creek Mary (Akusa Amayi), but tracing them through five generations and across most of the American continent, from Okelogee in Georgia to the Black Hills of South Dakota, Santa Fe and even three visits to the White House. Using fictional characters against a carefully researched historical background, he combines the attractions of both genures. The major incidents of his story are true, but by inventing fictional participants he is able to give the events a human dimension lacking in the historic record, which is relatively cold and mostly recorded from the white man's point of view.

Brown's prose style is as much that of the historian as of the novelist -- not dazzling, and poetic only in occasional quotes which capture the special rhetoric embedded in the structure of Indian languages, but efficient, informative and readable.

Mary had two husbands who symbolize tow ways of dealing with the cultural clash that is the book's subject. The first was an English colonist, John Kingsley, who is related thematically to the effort at accommodation and assimilation among the Cherokees in te Southeast. The second was a Cherokee, The Long Warrior, a leader of the resistance to white encroachment, whose offspring merged into the Cheyenne of the Central Plains, where that resistance was most bitter and prolonged.

Both ways of coping ultimately proved futile, and in his novel's epic length Dee Brown has leisure to examine the modes of futillity in assimilation and in resistance.

"It is always difficult," says the book's narrator, "for two Cherokees to agree about anything for very long." and this problem underlies the novel's Book One, "The Easterners." Under pressure from white settlers in colonial Georgia, the Cherokees are seriously divided on how to meet the challenge. One group tries to preserve its identity and the old way of life, while another decides "to become as much like the white people as they could." They send their children to school in New England, work to establish a government with a written constitution, begin construction of a capital city, start a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix , and some of the prosperous ones even build big, plantation-style houses and purchase slaves.

It is ultimately useless. The decree comes from Washington that "all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi River must remove to the west of that river," the Cherokees, along with neighboring tribes, are driven (many to their death, others to a reservation in distant, alien Oklahoma) on the genocidal forced march know as "The Trail of Tears."

"We should have killed them all . . .," an old chief mourns as that deadly journey begins. "We lost because we tried to be like them."

The temptation to "be like them" was weaker for the Cheyenne and other tribes of the plains in Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, where the almost unanimous impulse was to resist. But ultimately it proved impossible: "It was like trying to stop a river with bare hands." As in the East, the white man's tactics in the West combined trickery with the threats of military strength. A decisive factor was technological superiority, in forms that ranged from the telegraph and the railroad to the blunt threat of repeating rifles.

Besides battles and massacres and forced migration, the plains Indians were reduced to helplessness by the mere presence, in growing numbers, of white settlers who drove away the buffalo herds, which were the center of the Indian economy. When they tried to follow the herds in their traditional way, they found themselves stopped by arbitrary boundaries, established sometimes by treaty but altered by military fiat. "We will starve if we do not go north to the buffalo," a Cheyenne chief tells an army captain in one thematic encounter. "You'll go where the army tells you to go." shouts the captain, and a moment later guns are blazing. "My orders are to kill Cheyennes where I find them," the captain observes.

Many Indians waver betwen adaptation and resistance. One of Creek Mary's great-grandchildren, Pleasant, has divided white and Indian ancester and an equally divided mind. At times, he is a leader of daring raids on the hated interlopers; at other times, he works for them as a scout or a Pony Express rider. Unable to resolve the conflicts within him, he finally commits suicide by threatening an armed soldier with an unloaded pistol -- and thus he becomes an almost perfect symbol of Cheyenne resistance in an unequal sturggle.

Not all of Mary's decendants have quit so dramatic a fate, though all are injured in one way or another by the clash of white and Indian culltures. The only survivor in the fifth generation is a namesake who becomes the first Indian and the first woman to win a degree from Columbia Medical School and then encounters total non-cooperation from the government when she tries to establish a hospital on the Oklahoma reservation.

All the greed, violence and deception that litter the pages of this novel, the cheating in the marketplace, massacres of the helpless and repeatedly broken treaties, can finially be summed up in one tiny image near the end of the book, when the Indian commuity is trying to raise money to put Creek Mary's last descendant, Amayi, through medical school. Even the children contribute, the boys making jewelry, arrows and arrowheads and selling them through the windows of trains stopped at the local depot.

"Sometimes the train would start up before they gave us money," a young Indian recalls. "We would run along on the cinders beside the train until it was going too fast for us, and the mean ones would laugh at us and keep our arrows and not give us money."

That's how the West was won.