CAVE PAINTING without caves was the result when Pueblo Indian pottery painters took up watercolors. In the early part of this century, the School of American Research in Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Indian School encouraged the painters to use watercolors to document their culture -- the costumes, the dances, the myths:

The Eagle Dancers, their feathery arms outstretched to mimic the eagle's soaring. The Deer Dancers in their antler headdresses and blackened faces, appearing from the hills with stick forelegs poking along the ground. The Avanyu, the plumed serpent with powers of both earth and sky.

Poet Alice Corbin Henderson put together a collection of these Indian watercolors, which has since come into the hands of the Museum of American Art. Sixty-eight of the paintings are now on display there as "Symbols and Ceremonies: Pueblo Indian Watercolors."

This show is a sort of companion piece to the more ambitious exhibit upstairs in the museum, "Art in New Mexico: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe," paintings produced by Anglos at the same time that the Pueblo Indians were trying their hand at watercolors.

While the Indians' paths crossed the Anglos', their art didn't fall by the wayside. The Indians didn't come under "western" influence: Among the paintings here, only one has a horizon. But while the perspective is primitive, the sun, the desert plants, the rainbow, and even the rain, are highly stylized. And the paintings are very illustrative to the smallest costume detail, down to the feathertips. Some of them look like paper dolls before they are cut out, or kachinas on paper.

In the Santa Fe schools, says Martina Norelli, associate curator of graphic arts at the museum, "They weren't teaching them how to paint in a western manner, but providing them with western materials -- watercolors, ink, paper -- saying, 'In your own way, document these things.' "

And so they went from pottery painting, sand painting and the occasional wall painting, to watercolors. Awa Tsireh, whose name means Cattail Bird, made the easiest transition. Well represented in the show, he was a natural draftsman with a flair for detail and vibrant colors.

It helped that he came from the San Ildefonso Pueblo -- as did six of the eight artists here. Not all the pueblos permitted their painters to do watercolors.

"Some were ostracized from their pueblos," says Norelli, "for working in the western manner, and for revealing the content of the ceremony."

SYMBOLS AND CEREMONIES: PUEBLO INDIAN WATERCOLORS -- At the Museum of American Art through August 17.