Eight years ago, Hank Adams, a soft-spoken Assiniboine-Sioux Indian, was arrested on charges of possessing government documents stolen during a takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs here.

Yesterday, Adams was one of nine Americans awarded Jefferson medals for "outstanding public service." He was cited "for his leadership in seeking equal opportunities for American Indians."

Adams, 37, accepted the gold-on-silver medallion plus $5,000 in a ceremony at the Supreme Court, along with such well-known recipients as budget director David Stockman, newsman Walter Cronkite and former deputy secretary of State Warren Christopher.

After the ceremony, a reporter asked Adams, who lives in Olympia, Wash., if the award vindicated his early actions. "We [Indians] are far beyond vindication," he said. "The ones who need vindication are the politicians who annually introduce legislation that requires tribes to come here to keep an eye on their mischief."

After the furor of the BIA takeover died down, the indictment against Adams, who had been attempting to mediate the violent protest against Nixon admininstration policies, was dropped. The next year, recognized as an authentic spokesman for native Americans, he helped settle the deadly confrontation at Wounded Knee. In 1974, he played a major role in forcing a Supreme Court ruling that upheld Indian hunting and fishing rights, and last year, his personal lobbying was credited with passage of federal legislation that preserves Indians' net-fishing rights in the Northwest.

The Jefferson Awards were begun in 1973 by the nonpartisan American Institute for Public Service as "a Nobel Prize for achievement in public service," according to Samuel S. Beard, the institute president.

Master of ceremonies Jack Valenti said the awards are "fast becoming one of the nation's most prestigious awards."

Christopher won the public official medal for his work in negotiating the release of the American hostages in Iran.

Cronkite, the only absent honoree (he was sailing in the annual yacht race to Bermuda), was selected from the private sector for his "integrity and excellence in reporting world news."

Stockman, winner in the 35-and-under category, was cited "for his leadership in fighting inflation and cutting back spending; and for strengthening private sector economic revitalization."

Marva Collins, who operates a private school in the Chicago Ghetto, was honored "for her inspiration, for her personal courage and tenacity, and for opening new intellectual horizons for low-income children."

A special award was given to retiring U.S. Justice Potter Stewart.

Four others were honored along with Adams in the category of public service benefiting local communities. They were:

Irene Auberlin, 84, of Detroit, who, as president of World Medical Relief Inc., directs six paid employes and 600 volunteers, of which she is one, in gathering from "this wasteful nation" $350 million worth of drugs and medical supplies for the world's poor and sick.

David Crockett, president of the Neighborhood Justice Center of Atlanta, which has resolved more than 3,000 disputes among individuals without resorting to the courts, where, he said, the cost of legal counsel is out of the reach of most poor and middle-income citizens. His Atlanta program is now being used as a model nationwide.

Homer Fahner, who has organized senior citizens in Sacramento to salvage edible food that was being destroyed or wasted throughout California. Is 500 volunteers go into the fields daily and pick fruit passed over as unprofitable and then sell it at storefront locations and distribute it free to the poor.

Hoey Somchay, one of 20,000 Hmong tribesmen who fled to America from Laos in 1975, who started the Hmong Project in Chicago to find used furniture and clothing for the city's 2,000 Hmong refugees. He also organized 10 centers for teaching English and job skills to the uneducated, rural mountain people.