The Smithsonian is ignoring and, where grudgingly acknowledging, demeaning the contribution of its chief benefactor, George Heye, to the new National Museum of the American Indian.

More than half a century ago, while the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History still dealt with the American Indian as an anthropological oddity, Mr. Heye, whom The Post disdainfully called a "boxcar" collector [front page, Sept. 13], amassed a cornucopia of native works from the Americas. He used his own money and contributed his entire collection for public use and exhibition. Mr. Heye's donation of the largest private collection amassed went uncompensated and largely unacknowledged. But for his "boxcar" collection, we'd have no Museum of the American Indian today.

The collection, given to New York City, was exhibited there, largely unnoticed, for many years.

While Mr. Heye was amassing his collection, his better-educated, culturally more sophisticated and politically more sensitive contemporaries were ignoring the culture of the native peoples of the Americas. Mr. Heye deserves our gratitude and appreciation for acting as collector, conservator and steward of a heritage, which, while in his custody and that of New York City, gave the rest of us time to come to our senses.

It is high time for the ingrates in charge of this museum properly to acknowledge and credit their benefactor.