Douglas Saunders, 16 years old, goes to high school in Brigham City, Utah. He lives on the Papago Reservation nearby.

He's an American Indian. That still causes some problems.

"Every time I go into the store," Saunders said softly yesterday, "they'll be looking at me like I'm a shoplifter or something. They should give us a chance to prove ourselves."

This week the government and some private groups are trying to do just that. Four hundred youths from tribes and reservations throughout the country are in Washington, attending the seven-day National Indian Youth Leadership Conference at American University.

All week they'll be attending lectures and workshops and meeting government officials who will try to help them understand the role they can play in Indian affairs and in what they call "the dominant society."

They'll be meeting fewer officials than expected. President Carter, who greeted the first annual conference last summer, did not attend yesterday's brief welcomed on the South Lawn of the White House -- chief of staff Jack Watson took over -- and Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a scheduled afternoon speaker back at American, also pleaded other commitments.

At the White House welcoming, Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall acknowledged that "There are not many job opportunities in places where Indians live." He described the programs the Department of Labor and other government agencies operate to fight the problem. The young participants, all between 16 and 20 years old, listened politely despite the intense heat.

One speaker advised them to counter the August heat by thinking of the coldest temperature they had ever experienced. That didn't provide much comfort for Brenda Mann, a Tlingit Indian from Juneau, Alaska, who studies Japanese at the University of Oregon. She had faced, she murmured, "170 degrees below," with wind chill.

Most participants dressed in the usual student gear, with exceptions like Lois Haumpy, the 1980 Kiowa Princess from Carnegie, Okla. She drew attention. The eagle plume in her hair and her cloth dress with a multicolored beaded breast plate set her apart, as did the large feather with which she fanned herself.

"She must be Miss Indian Something-or-other," remarked Mann.

Conference leaders devoted the afternoon session to energizing and organizing the group. Lonnie Racehorse, president of Idaho Inter-Tribal Policy Board, a conference co-sponsor, admitted to the group that he too felt "kind of let down," about the no-shows, but he counseled them to listen closely to government representatives who had come and who knew the nuts and bolts of Indian problems.

Sandy MacNab fits that description well. Director of Labor's division of Indian and Native American Programs until last week and a MicMac Indian himself, he started off by getting the kids to applaud themselves, "celebrate" themselves. He then talked to them of everything from energy to minerals to Kierkegaard and the Beatles, coming back in his rambling but effective way to Seneca Chief Redjacket, who wondered in 1835 why the white man kept his religion in a little building and visited it once a week.

The message of his talk was that it will take "more aggressive, intellectual Indians to win the next war," and that legal judgments in favor of Indian tribes were "bigger victories than Little Bighorn."

Soon the group broke up into smaller "councils" to elect presidents and select names for each group, to be drawn from Indian leaders. On the agenda for the evening was non-participatory combat -- "Star Wars."