Any notion of Indian Peace Medals as trinkets for the natives is quickly dispelled by a look at 15 fierce and proud Indian chiefs, respectfully portrayed by 19th-century artists, who wear them.

"Peace and Friendship: The Indian Peace Medal in the United States," at the National Portrait Gallery through April 21, also exhibits 82 silver (and a few bronze and pewter) medals, one handsomely hanging from a bead-and-tooth necklace; a silver peace pipe; a silver-plated tomahawk; an 1836 flag; a silver breastplate; and six photographs, among them a picture of a Chippewa Indian with the wonderful name of Sound of Eating.

The medals themselves are beautiful examples of classical craftsmanship, hand-carved and engraved on heavy plates of silver and later die-struck. In most cases the president of the period, in an idealized if not deified manner, is profiled on one side by a well-known contemporary sculptor (sculptors include Ferdinand Pettrich, Henry Kirke Brown and others). On the back are scenes often glorifying agricultural and domestic arts, not-so-subtle hints to nomadic Indians. Sometimes the reverse shows Indian and white hands clasped, and the inscription "peace and friendship."

These tributes were paid by presidents beginning with Washington and ending with Cleveland to chiefs of power and position, leaders of great Indian nations, rightful rulers of the land. The Indians' tolerance, if not friendship, was essential to the safety and tranquility of the new United States.

The portraits evoke an emotional understanding far more than the rather cold and chaste medals. A splendid pierced circlet dangles from the nose of George Lowrey, a chief of the Cherokee tribe in the 19th century (in a painting attributed to George Catlin), and matching ornaments hang from his ears. These decorations are but a background to his greatest mark of rank -- a large medal bearing the likeness of president James Monroe.

Souligay (by Samuel Brookes) wears his medal with his feathered crown, beaded shoulder band and a great circlet of stones, but his face registers skepticism, and though his James Madison medal is large, his bow is close at hand.

Sagoyewatha, or Red Jacket (painted by Charles Bird King circa 1828), is an old, tight-lipped Seneca chief decked out in a white man's jacket and jabot. His peace medal is almost as large as his chest. No stamped-out standard issue this, the hand-engraved medal is the most famous of the George Washington medals, showing Red Jacket in full feather smoking a peace pipe with the president. According to stories, the medal was pawned from time to time, but reclaimed and handed down to generations of Sagoyewatha descendants.

The Rev. Francis Paul Prucha explains, in the catalogue, that the custom of honoring Indian leaders with medals went back many decades to French, Spanish and British practice. Some Indians turned in their British medals for U.S. versions to signal a change in alliance. In 1797 secretary of war James McHenry wrote: "My poor Indians are very clamorous for their medals, more so indeed than for their plows."

As late as 1829, Thomas L. McKenney, head of the Indian office, informed the secretary of war: "so important is its continuance . . . that without medals, any plan of operations among the Indians . . . is essentially enfeebled. This comes of the high value which the Indians set upon these tokens of Friendship. They are, besides this indication of the Government Friendship, badges of power to them, and trophies of renown. They will not consent to part from this ancient right . . . "

The last medals were awarded in 1896 by Harvard's Peabody Museum to two old Omaha Indians who had served as consultants.

The two-room exhibit is not large. Its accompanying catalogue makes one wish for many more pages, especially biographies of the Indian chieftains. While there, prowl the Portrait Gallery and its twin, the National Museum of American Art, for other paintings of the "Noble Savages," as the often less-civilized whites called them.