The federal government is the largest benefactor of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the national organization based in Boulder, Colo., which is spearheading the spate of Indian suits in Maine, Massachusetts and elsewhere.

Federal donations to NARF for the current fiscal year total $446,000 over one-third of NARF's $1.2 million budget.

The office of Native American Programs of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare provided $281,000 to NARF for its current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, according to NARF business manager James Laurie.

The Legal Services Corp., a non-profit agency funded by Congress, provided NARF with $135,000 this year.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provided the final $30,000.

NARF director Thomas Fredericks denies that federal monies are being used to maintain the Indian suits in the Northeast, saying they are being funded through private donations, most of which come from the Lilly Endowment.

But Fredericks conceded that NARF does uses federal dollars from the Legal Services Corp. for active litigation in the West and Midwest over water rights and Indian sovereignty.

Legal Services spokewoman Harriet Ellis confirmed Frederick's statement.

George Clark, deputy director of the Offfice of Native American Programs, stressed that his agency's funds are not to be used for active litigation.

"No one is to enter a courtroom under our grants," he said. "They may be used for research of treaties, but that's it."

Clark added that the nebulous line dividing research and active litigation stems largely from the informal guidelines on the subject outlined by the now-defunct Office of Economic Opportunity.

"It really was a hodgepodge evolution," Clark said.

But it is acknowledged that the Legal Services and BIA monies were for active litigation work and general consulting work in Indian law.

The Ford Foundation, - which helped establish NARF in 1971, was second behind the government this year, with contributions of $336,000 for general support and another $90,000 for an educational grant.

The Lilly Endowment was third, with $263,000. Locally in Massachusetts, the Lilly Foundation has given generously to civic programs in Falmouth, where many members of the Lilly family have summered for years. Falmouth is adjacent to embattled Mashpee. Mashpee is being sued by the Wampanoag Indians through NARF lawyer Barry Margolin for 13,000 for the 16,000 acres of land in the town as their tribal ancestral property.

The Carnegie Foundation provided NARF with $104,000 this year for a lawyers' intern program, and the Field Foundation provided $37,000 to support water rights cases.

Laurie said that small gifts also came from between 25 and 50 private corporations as well.

"We're just beginning to scratch direct mailing," Laurie said."It takes time to develop a good mailing list."

NARF, which is audited each year by the Price Waterhouse Co., maintains its headquaters in Boulder. Branch offices are in Calais, Maine, and Washington, D. C.

Fourteen of the 20 NARF lawyers are Indians, and about 25 of the 30 support staff are also Indians, according to Laurie.