What Washington lacked unti recently was a place you could go anytime and see American Indian art, said Retha Walden Gambaro, a sculptor and the daughter of a full-blooded Creek Indian.

Silver, pottery, beadwork and other handicrafts have been on display at the Smithsonian, even at local stores, she explained, but painting and sculpture by contemporary Indian artists are nowhere to be found.

So, not being one to sit back and complain, Retha Gambaro opened a gallery herself.

It is called Via Gambaro, and it is owned by Gambaro and her husband, Stephen, a photographer and the director of the District Rehabilitation Services Bureau. Adjacent to their home at 416 11th St. SE, the gallery is all wood beams and exposed brick, converted from a carriage house built in 1832.

Most, but not all, of the shows there are devoted to the work of American Indian artists. On display now through July 31, for example, is a show called "Indian Artists 1978," featuring the painting and sculpture of seven faculty members of the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Art, who represent tribes from throughout the United States. In one corner of the gallery, fenced off like a corral, is a collection of sculpture in bronze, clay and stone. A mother bear plays with her cub; a sea lion tosses his head in the air in absolute contentment; a bison head brings back memories of buffalo running wild out west.

These are the work of Retha Gambaro.

"I know that every animal has a soul, as much as you or I," says Gambaro. "I believe that very deeply.

"Animals are so ignored and treated so poorly," she continues. "You know, I have hunted and killed animals for food, out of necessity. That't the way we got our protein - rabbit, quail, deer, wild turkey . . . We also raised animals to butcher - chickens, goats."

Gambaro was born in 1917 in Lenna, a small town in northeast Oklahoma in what was once Indian Territory. Her mother was Creek. Her father, of Cherokee-English descent, "was a Christian who believed in assimilation," and he moved his family to Arizona when Gambaro was very young.

When she finished the eight grade, she had to quit school to help support her family. Throughout her career, she says, she did whatever job came her way - from working as a maid to a fashion designer. After her marriage to Stephen Gambaro, she continued working so he could complete high school and college.

But in 1969, when her third and youngest child was about to leave the Marine Corps and announced that he was not coming home, Gambaro found time weighing heavy on her hands.

"I went out and bought canvas, brushes and three tubes of paint. In 10 days they were in the trash can. Then, I bought 25 pounds of clay and modeled the head of a woman, a neighbor on East Capitol Street. A friend of mine saw it and gave me a check to take a summer course at the Corcoran. She tought I had talent."

So did her teacher at the Corcoran School of Art, Berthold Schmutzhart. Within a few years, Gambaro was exploring different media - wood, copper, bronze, stone and hydrostone - seeing what form could be released from a block of wood or a boulder from Georgia. Even with clay, she would pile it in a mound, then carve away.

Her work soon began to sell. One of her statues, a bronze fountain in the shape of a mermaid, recently was installed outside the visitor's center at the National Arboretum. Her work has been displayed at galleries from New York to California, and in the District, at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Art Barn.

In 1973, the Gambaros purchased their present home and converted the carriage house into a studio. Three years later, they opened the gallery. For next spring, they plan a show of their own work, including Stephen Gambaro's portraits of American Indians in tribal attire. Gambaro, of Italian-American descent, first became fascinated with Indian culture when he was stationed in Alaska during World War II. Retha Gambaro will show a series of statues of American Indian women, carved in wood, depicting the difference in stature and bearing of the different tribes.

"Indian Artists 1978," the show now on display at Via Gambaro, is one of contrasts, highlighting the diversity of the American Indian heritage. All Arctic hunter, molded in terra cotta by Lawrence Ahvakana, an Inupiat of Alaska, stalks his prey beside the glowing, desert-inspired canvases of Linda Lomahaftewa, of Hopi descent.

The masks and totems of the Tulalip tribe of the northwest coast are preserved in the surrealistic painting of Henry Gobin, director of the Santa Fe Institute of American Indian Art. In the acrylics of Larry Desjarlais, a Turle Mountain Chippewa, armed warriors with faces painted in red, white and blue stand guard over barren landscapes.

What ties the show together, explains Stephen Gambaro, is the attempt to preserve tribal themes, to protect a culture from becoming engulfed and extinguished.

What sets American Indian artists apart from the newcomers of European heritage, he continues, is their comfort with death and closeness to nature. This last quality is clear in Retha Gambaro's sculpture.

Youthful in appearance and enthusiasm, Gambaro appears ready to set off on any new adventure, to accept and twists or turns in the path ahead. On the contrary, she says, she is sticking with sculpture.

"As long as I live I will be sculpting, if I have the facilities to do it - if I have brains and eyes and hands. If your hands can pour creation, it's," she hesitates, "it's thrilling. I know I have been given a gift."