YELLOWKNIFE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES, CANADA -- Radio commentator Allan Adam struggles to interpret for his fellow Chipewyan Indians in their native language the meaning of some of the frequently confusing images they see on television.

The ancient tribes of the Canadian Arctic have come eagerly into the "global village" of the video age, courtesy of new satellite technology that allows them to switch from the news in Edmonton and Vancouver to "Dallas" or Dan Rather with a click of the remote gun.

In large ways not yet fully comprehended, this has wrought profound change among these people, many of whom still return for months on end to the cold, harsh solitude of the northern wilderness to fish, trap, chase moose and caribou and lead a primitive, nomadic existence much the same as that of their ancestors.

In his daily Chipewyan-language program on Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) radio here, the 29-year-old Adam is attempting to bridge a linguistic and cultural chasm. Among other endeavors, he tries to explain the conflict in the Persian Gulf to scattered societies where one in three persons does not understand English and most have not traveled 500 miles from their place of birth.

There is no word in the native language for Persian Gulf, nor are there names for Iran, Iraq or the Middle East. So Adam must improvise. He locates the Middle East generally by describing it in Chipewyan as "the place where Jesus walked." Discussing Washington's role in the gulf presents thorny enough problems for his listeners, but he first must locate Washington. The term he uses comes from the description that the Chipewyans gave to the white explorers who came here more than a century ago. Washington is called "the land of the people with the big knives."

Some events defy translation. Bob Rhodes, area manager for CBC radio here, recalls how one of the other native-language broadcasters decided that the way to handle the Air Florida crash in Washington in 1982 was to assure his listeners that the disaster was no cause for alarm.

"You may see big plane crash on television," the radio announcer told them. "Not here. Far, far away to the south. In white man's country."

Slightly fewer than 80,000 persons inhabit the Canadian North, a landscape half the size of the United States. Canadian governments, which have spent millions to bring radio and television to the northern regions, brought radio there in the late 1950s because they wanted to counteract English-language Radio Moscow, which boomed in from the other side of the North Pole, and to reestablish Canadian sovereignty over territory dominated by Americans during World War II. Canadian television came 20 years later.

The major American networks and public broadcasting are arriving now, because of a Canadian government policy known by the shorthand phrase "three plus one." It is a strict commitment to extend to all Canadians, regardless of their distance from the U.S. border, access to the three American networks plus one public television channel.

Some communities, such as the tiny settlements on the coast of the Beaufort Sea above the Arctic Circle, resisted this cultural invasion for a few years, but in time they also succumbed to the irresistible new kaleidoscope of images that altered their perceptions from the first day.

"That morning they didn't have anything," Rhodes said, remembering the capitulation of the final holdouts in the late 1970s. "By suppertime, they had 16 hours of TV and 24 hours of radio."

Rhodes, his prote'ge' Allan Adam and several others interviewed here falter when asked about the impact of these and other changes.

While television and radio have been the most profound changes, the old cultures also have been affected by factors as diverse as the work of Catholic missionaries, the replacement of the dogsled with the snowmobile and the use of small aircraft to reach distant areas. More recently, the video games in Radio Shack emporiums, the Reeboks and stone-washed denims at the omnipresent Hudson Bay Co. -- now more involved with its new role as the mall-style department store of the North than with the traditional and diminishing fur trade -- testify to modern inroads.

Nostalgia for the traditional way of life is strongest among the '60s generation of politicians now in power. College-educated, native-born Rita Cli, the chief administrator for the Northwest Territories government in the Mackenzie River town of Fort Simpson, occasionally will escape the ringing phones and other pressures of her job to spend a weekend in "the bush" with her father and brothers.

"You know, you go out there and you have a heck of a good time," she says. "You come back and you feel like you have enough energy to go on for a year. Whatever anger you have when you go out there is left there when you come back."

The chasm confronting the native peoples of the Canadian North is perhaps best illustrated by the most popular programs on radio and television. "Dallas" and "All My Children" are big television draws, according to the informal surveys of CBC executives here. "Bush Radio," which airs from 6 to 8 a.m. and delivers personal messages over transistor radios to peddlers, dog drivers, hunters, canoeists and trappers, is the favorite radio show. Trappers on the tundra, for example, learn about major family events such as the birth of children on "Bush Radio." Vital information such as the times and touchdown locations of airplanes bringing supplies is also aired.

One of the mysteries is just what the native peoples make of what they see on television. "In some of the smallest communities, you can see a satellite dish," noted George Tuccarro, a Cree Indian who is a CBC radio staff producer. "In some Inuit communities {where} they don't speak English, they turn the volume down and watch the image on the screens. I don't know what that does to people's heads."

Many believe the television set serves mostly as a kind of electronic fireplace of pretty, flickering images that -- whether sitcom or news footage -- are perceived as fiction or myth. A perhaps apocryphal story is told of an elderly Inuit man who erupted in laughter when it was explained that the pictures of the men in spacesuits jumping up and down on a cratered surface were of American astronauts making the first moon landing in 1969. Recovering, the elderly tribesman is said to have dismissed the event as nothing new. The Inuit's shamans had been going up to the moon for ages, he said.

Other responses indicate that people do distinguish the real from the fanciful and that they react with empathy to some of what they see through the prism of their own traditions and values. Rhodes said Inuit reporters have told him that their people crave more interpretation of the events they see on their small screens. He said they told him that the Inuit were very disturbed when they saw women and children suffering or being hurt. That was the meaning for them of the pictures of starvation they saw from the famine in Ethiopia. It is what is important to them in the footage of the chaos and violence in Beirut.

Contact with the outside world has been a jolting experience for the Indians and Eskimos of the North. Even a man as successful in forging a bridge between native culture and the white man's world as the senior CBC native-language broadcaster, Joe Tobie, expresses feelings of ambivalence.

In a long conversation one recent afternoon, Tobie, 55, who is descended from both the Chipewyan and Slavey tribes, mused about his show. As much as he tries to interpret the bigger world, he said he is convinced that community news and the country-and-western songs he intersperses in his commentary are the most popular features on his show. "I used to play Hank Snow," he says, "but the people would say, 'that old music again.' " So, he plays the favorites, Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter" and Lacy J. Dalton's "Sixteenth Avenue."

Tobie considers with a certain aloofness any questions about where he thinks all this will lead. While his younger fellow Chipewyan, Allan Adam, talks enthusiastically about the possibilities for modernizing the Chipewyan language and the other five native languages of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Canada through the six hours of programming each day on CBC radio, Tobie says he looks forward to the time when he can retire, with a pension. Then, he said, at least once a month he can "stay out of the big city" of Yellowknife (population 11,000), go back to the bush where there is "none of this 8 o'clock, on time," routine, and just "mind my own business."

Western influences have produced mixed results for the native peoples of the Canadian North. Better health care has raised life expectancies while education, first by Catholic missionaries and now by the territorial government, has boosted literacy rates. But along with them have come generational conflict between illiterate parents and educated children and an erosion of self-esteem among males as traditional roles are being redefined. Women are speaking out more and voicing their complaints. Boredom, brawling and wife abuse are major problems here, exceeded only by the pervasive scourge of alcoholism.

"The thing is, everything's tumbling so fast you never get ahead of it," Dr. Ross Wheeler, chairman of the Alcohol and Drug Coordinating Council of the Northwest Territories, says not just of the influence of television but also of all the other unsettling changes. "It moves so quickly that in a lot of ways all we've been doing is playing catch-up -- catching the people who have fallen off the edge of the cliff."

But there are the success stories. In the 1950s and 1960s, Catholic missionaries here assiduously culled the best and brightest and sent them off to Grandin College in the village of Fort Smith, about 300 miles south. Radicalized by the ultimately abortive plans to lay the Alaskan oil pipeline across their lands, they have emerged as a persuasive and able force.

They were responsible for the planning of the visit of Pope John Paul II in September. On behalf of the natives here, they are negotiating with Canada for self-government. The aspirations, says Fort Simpson Chief Jerry Antoine, are neither to be assimilated or to be rigidly separate from the rest of Canada.

"We as native people can contribute to the mosaic of Canada if the federal government recognizes that," Antoine said. A political rapprochement "will greatly increase the Boy Scout image of Canada," he added.

But the still murky aspirations influenced by television are another factor that the young political leaders will have to deal with. "There's a very strong possibility that we will get swallowed up," says Steve Kakfwi, former president of the Dene Nation, an association of the Indian tribes of the western part of the Northwest Territories.

"That's the danger of the dance," Kakfwi continues. "We may end up at the end of this process as nice, brown white people -- just part of the melting pot -- or we may end up as a strong Dene Nation which has no problem being part of the larger society but is strong enough to stand on its own."