THESE DAYS, ballets with a political message turn up about as frequently as cacti in a rain forest. So when a dance like Michael Smuin's "A Song for Dead Warriors" rears its oh-so- controversial head, a dance- watcher can't help but cheer. This sensational indictment of Native American oppression, which can be seen at Friday evening and Sunday afternoon performances by the San Francisco Ballet, has proven to be one of that company's most popular and provocative offerings.

"I didn't want to do a ballet where a lot of beautiful Indians in warbonnets and feathers prayed on a cliff during a beautiful sunset," says Smuin. Instead, he chose a more contemporary, and certainly more incendiary approach.

"Song for Dead Warriors" is based on the life of Richard Oakes, a young activist of Canadian Mohawk heritage who helped lead the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. But it deals with its subject matter in epic fashion, using a cast of 31 dancers and a host of spectacular effects -- ghostlike sheriffs standing twenty feet tall, six immense bison, a set composed of fantastic clouds and trees, huge photographic blowups.

"Warriors" is just one of eight works the San Franciscans have brought to Washington. Smuin will also be represented by "To the Beatles" -- a tribute to the Fab Four set to 11 of their songs -- and by the more classic "Brahms/Haydn Variations," "Mozart Piano Concerto" and a pas de deux from his interpretation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Rounding out the repertoire are three ballets: "Airs de Ballet," "Vivaldi Concerto Grosso" and "Con Amore," all choreographed by Lew Christiensen, director of this venerable troupe from 1952 until his death last year.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET -- Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 1:30 p.m., Kennedy Center Opera House.