The reviewer is a free-lance writer in Washington.

Two men of science have lived recently among North American Indian tribes, intending to study their natural surroundings. But in the tradition of 19th-century adventurers, both found their interest deepening and so embarked on broader explorations of Indian culture than they had planned. One, Gary Paul Nabhan, went south to visit the Papago Indians of southern Arizona and northern Mexico, and the other, Hugh Brody, went north to observe the Athapaskan peoples of northeastern British Columbia.

Originally planning to spend only five weeks charting traditional hunting grounds, Brody stayed 18 months, living closer to the Athapaskans and for a longer time than almost any other white man alive. Although he is an Englishman, he has immersed himself in the history of westward expansion and concluded, as photographer Edward Curtis observed near the turn of the century, that the Indians have been "the most visible sign that something was wrong with the American dream." Brady sees that the Indians are a resilient and strong-willed people, but they have not pushed their will on others as relentlessly as white men have. As a result, they have been pushed back whenever their interests conflicted with the white man's.

The latest in a long history of conflicting interests is the Alaska Highway pipeline, which is intended to carry natural gas to the midwestern United States. The problem is that the Canadian section of the project, which has been approved and is already under construction, cuts through the prime hunting grounds of several of the Athapaskan tribes. Already confined to reservations, they are now watching their ancient hunting, fishing and trapping lands steadily diminish as white settlement, logging and sport hunting creep farther into the northern frontier.

Brody believes that white insensitivity to Indian concerns comes about because "the present and living economic interests of the northern Indians are still rarely reckoned with." He goes to some length to show that the Indian cultures, although lacking money, have a sound economic system relying on hunting and trapping. Many of the Indians Brody met have taken jobs outside the reservation, but community life still revolves around the hunt.

Privileged as few whites have been, Brody took part in several hunts during his stay. His accounts of these expeditions are stirring and dramatic, echoing a timeless past. The Indians do not kill for sport, as the white man does; following age-old traditions, they take only what is required to feed the community. Their usual quarries are moose, deer, rabbit, beaver and fish. If certain animals are scarce, elders of the tribe decree that none be shot until their numbers are replenished.

One of the things Brody noticed about the northern Indians was their ability to adapt to changing circumstances without losing their own customs. Before a Christian funeral to which the Indians remained blithely indifferent, they gathered to dig the grave and share sandwiches. In the friendly group, Brody saw a relaxed contentment that typified all that was best about Indian culture: "Repose and activity seemed to be collective in the most subtle ways. Contact between people . . . was free of any discernible strain or anxiety. All were busy, in their own way, without instructions. Yet the contact was as compelling as it was unspoken."

Brody presents the Indians' case sympathetically but sometimes a little too insistently. Dividing his chapters between his own experiences and a historical and anthropological account of the north country, Brody is too often repetitive and pads his dry analytical chapters with statistics. Twenty maps reproduced in the book depict hunting grounds and other Indian lands, but they are mostly unhelpful or downright confusing. Brody could have strengthened his book by pruning his finger-pointing passages, but when he writes of Indian life, his prose sparkles.

"Maps and Dreams" is a sophisticated book, with an eventful narrative and a discussion of complex economic, social and moral questions. By comparison, Gary Paul Nabhan's profile of the Papago Indians of Arizona and northern Mexico is weak almost to the point of anemia. The trouble appears to be that Nabhan is unsure of what he wants his book to be. It is part natural history, part anthropology, part folklore, part political analysis. From the beginning, the reader is made wary by this disclaimer: "The fictitious Papago in the chapters which follow are composites of several people--a character is not intended to represent a particular real-life person." By this measure, Nabhan's book becomes fiction, as well.

Because he is a botanist, he is at his best describing the fragile ecology of the desert. He also shows how the Papago bring the natural world into their myths and rituals. For example, we learn that they endow the giant saguaro cactus with human characteristics. We learn, too, how the sporadic rainfall of the Sonora desert permeates Papago thinking, giving them a strong awareness of the unpredictability of experience.

Continually displaced by the agriculture, land deals and government policies of two countries, the Papago are little known to outsiders. Nabhan rightly takes pains to introduce them to unfamiliar readers. He includes a pronunciation guide to their tongue-twisting dialect and describes many native customs and beliefs.

But either because the "fictitious" characters have a slippery, secondhand presence or because pagan animistic ideas cannot easily penetrate our skeptical Western credibility, many of these tales fail to leave a lasting impression. Curiously enough, Nabhan seems unaware of Joseph Wood Krutch, who wrote eloquently of the very desert that is home to the Papago.

Nabhan's sympathies are in the right place, but the enlightening study to which the Papago are entitled goes unfulfilled in "The Desert Smells Like Rain."