THE UNITED States made a terrible mistake many years ago when it gave the American Indians a lot of what it considered worthless land to live on. It now turns out that this land has on it - and under - one third of all the low-sulphur coal suitable for strip mining; about 55 per cent of the nation's uranium, and 3 or 4 per cent of its oil and natural gas.

But the Indians, instead of offering to return the land to the white men, have formed a "Council of Energy Resources" and are planning to play hard ball with easements and mining rights. No amount of persuasion can make the Indians realize that the white man erred in giving them the wrong land.

A friend of mine went out to talk to an Indian Council member the other day. He said, "I come in peace. Many moons ago our forefathers did your tribe a terrible injustice. We gave you land on which nothing could grow and no animals could graze."

"We know about that," the Indian chief replied. "Our geologists recently reported that the reason nothing could grow on our land was that there was too much low-sulphur coal in it."

"Exactly. Since you are the descendants of these brave warriors we wish to make amends and give you land that really has some value."

"You are very kind, but we are happy with the land," the chief said. "The royalties from our uranium deposits will see us through many a cold winter."

"But mining uranium is so degrading for an American Indian," my friend said.

"We're not going to mine it," the Indian chief said. "We're going to let the whit eman do that. We're going into stock investment, bonds and real estate. We might even buy a few insurance companies, and Boardwalk and Park Place, if they ever get those Atlantic City casinos built."

"Byt Great Chief, wouldn't your people be happier living elsewhere besides this vast wasteland of parched earth?

"Do you know what's under that parched earth? Three or 4 per cent of all th oil reserves in the United States. We're even thinking of joining OPEC and trying to persuade them to raise the price of oil to $15 a barrel."

"But what does an Indian want with oil? Your horses and buffalo need fresh water."

"Our Cadillacs and Lincolns don't. They have fuel injection and once you put antifreeze in them they can go without water for a year. Actually one of our plans is to open a string of gas stations with the brand name 'Fire Water' and start a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign with the slogan, 'Put an Apache in your tank.' How does that grab you?"

"Before you make these hasty decisions, O Mighty Chief, let me tell you what we are willing to trade for your grubby reservations."

"I'm listening."

"What would you say if I told you that the United States government is prepared to make up for the terrible treaties we mad with you in the past, by giving you in exchange for you land the following: the South Bronx, most of Watts in Los Angeles, all the land on the SST approach to Kennedy Airport, and part of downtown Cleveland."

"You would do that for the American Indian?"

"It's the least we can do for all the pain and anguish you have suffered through the years."

"I cant't give you my answer now because I have to fly off to Washington in a few minutes."

"Why are you going to Washington?"

"I'm lobbying for the gas deregulation bil," the chief said. "How does Carter expect our people to drill for gas, when he's only offering us $1.85 per 1,000 cubic feeet?"