IN 1898, after the Indian Wars were over and the West had been "won," there was a great gathering of American Indian tribes in Omaha. A pair of enterprising photographers made portraits of most of the 500 delegates, creating a poignant record of the peoples whose nations had been washed away by the westward tide of empire.

A few dozen of those spare and powerful Indian Congress photographs are now on view at the Interior Department headquarters. Made with both skill and respect, the portraits bring us face to face with warriors who won their last great battle at the Little Big Horn, and recognized the futility of further resistance after the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Here is Geronimo (Guiyatle), the Chiricahua Apache whose bravery and brilliant tactics so impressed the U.S. Army that our troops still cry his name in moments of desperate courage. A prisoner at Fort Sill, Okla., Geronimo came to the congress under military guard. Shown at age 69, wearing a coat and tie, he radiates such power it's no wonder the government was still afraid of him.

Here is Red Cloud, the Sioux chief who was conquered but not defeated, and never yielded a foot of his people's land except at gunpoint. At 78, nearly blind, he stands before the camera clothed in ceremonial regalia and vast dignity.

Here are Kicking Bear, the Cheyenne Sioux who brought the Ghost Dance and brief, shining hope to Sitting Bull and his people at Standing Rock; Shot in the Eye, blinded at the Little Big Horn; Curley, one of Custer's scouts; and Clear, who traveled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Although Plains Indians predominated because of the location of the congress, 36 tribes participated, and representatives came from as far away as the East and West coasts. It was the first national gathering of the American Indian peoples.

The names alone are a kind of historical hymn: Hollow Horn Bear, Iron Hawk, Strikes Plenty, Wolf Robe, Many Horses, Towonkonie Jim, Frog, Dust Maker, Looks Cloud, Ghost Bull, Sham Battle, Stone of a Song, A Nation's Cry . . . .

Photographers Frank A. Rinehart and Adolph F. Muhr used few props and no phony settings in these respectful studies. The portraits were the most substantial result of the congress, which was a sort of sideshow to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition.

Unfortunately, Interior's exhibition of the photographs also is a sideshow, tucked away in two alcoves off the main corridor. To find them one must ask directions at the museum office; to enter the building one must show a photo ID and be signed in. No biographical information is given about most of those pictured, and only a sketchy historical context is supplied with the exhibit, which was rented from Haskell Indian Junior College of Lawrence, Kan.

Interior plans to upgrade its long-neglected museum and perhaps create its own street entrance, which would in one stroke make it one of Washington's major attractions. Meanwhile, it's worth searching out.