A dozen years ago, in school on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, Doug Nash picked the kind of career that appealed to most of his young Indian friends - an auto mechanic or perhaps, if he got lucky, a stock car jockey.

It was, Nash recalled the other day, a simple matter of choosing from what they knew best, "and there weren't very many role models available to choose from in those days."

Nash, now general counsel for the Umatilla tribe in Pendleton. Ore., is one of a growing number of Indian law school graduates who have gone back to practice among their fellow Indians. He is working, he said, to make sure that Umatilla youngsters have more career options than he did.

"I make myself very available and very visible," says the 29-year-old attorney. "Whenever a kid shows any interest I bring him up here to my office and show him what it's like. The image of an Indian working in a professional office is very important to these kids."

There are still relatively few Indian attorneys - not more than 300 out of some 320,000 - but "10 years ago you could look hard and find maybe 20 Indian attorneys in the whole country," said Thomas W. Fredericks, an Indian attorney and executive director of the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo., one of the most active organizations.

In addition to the 300 Indian attorneys now practicing, the American Indian Law Center at the University of New Mexico, the major placement organization for Indian law students, said another 127 are currently studying at 40 law schools around the country. Thelma Stiffarm, 32, an Indian attorney who is deputy director of the federally funded center, said 90 per cent or more plan to work on Indian problems when they graduate.

Interest in law has been spurred in recent years as tribes around the country have sought help in a proliferation of complex lawsuits involving Indian land, water and mineral rights, according to Fredericks.

When the Native American Rights Fund was formed as a law firm in 1970, he said, there were no Indians on its staff. Now, said Fredericks, 12 of the 20 attorneys are Indians and others have started their own law practices or gone to work for tribes.

Nash, the Umatilla attorney, was one of those who went to the fund when he graduated from the University of New Mexico law school in 1971. "In Indian law," he said, "you get a chance to handle novel cases and actually get involved in the law as it is being made."

One of Nash's cases began as an ordinary criminal charge against a member of the Kootenai tribe of Idaho for shooting two deer in 1972. It turned into a complicated suit involving aboriginal hunting rights for tribes that never received federal reservation status but that have lived for generations in one area.

Nash recently returned from Washington after helping prepare a private bill scheduled to be introduced in Congress. The bill would return criminal and civil jurisdiction to the Umatillas for the first time since 1953, when tribes in seven states lost that right by congressional act.

Nash is also handling the Umatilla portion of an even more complex battle over Indian treaty fishing rights that has pitted four tribes and the federal government against the states of Washington and Oregon. The 10-year-old case if now in federal district court in Portland.

"If I had taken a job with some non-Indian firm and put in my time the way most lawyers do, I'd still be a rookie," Nash said.

Larry Echo Hawk, a 28-year-old Pawnee now practicing Indian law in Salt Lake City, said he dropped out of a master's degree program at Stanford University to work on Indian law. "I guess I stood a chance to make big money if I stayed in business school but it can't compare to the personal satisfaction I get doing this."

Young attorneys like Nash and Echo Hawk are increasingly involved in complex legal disputes throughout the West. Indians have handled part of the pending case on how much control the Northern Cheyenne tribe in eastern Montana will have over hugh coal deposits on its reservation.

Northern Cheyenne attorneys also are seeking to hold up construction of a giant coal-fired power plant at Colstrip, Ment., on grounds that it would foul the air over their reservation 20 miles away.

Western Washington tribes have been involved in major federal legal disputes over whether long-ignored treaty rights will give them half of all the fish caught commercially in Puget Sound and will allow them to decide what kind of development will take place along the state's entire coastline.

Indians are also seeking attorneys in increasing numbers to settle tribal disputes, update tax and housing codes and resolve a wide variety of civil matters previously ignored or left to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"It used to be that a tribe would hire a non-Indian law firm in D.C. to handle its legal matters," said Rick West, an official of the American Indian Lawyers Training Program in Oakland, Calif. "Now tribes need someone on the scne on a daily basis, and financially it makes sense to have their own lawyers.

"Most tribes prefer to retain an Indian lawyer when they can get one," West said. His Oakland organization's fellowship program has placed 10 Indian attorneys with tribes seeking legal help, giving each attorney a small cash stipend to augment the tribal salary.

"In my mind there's no question there's a need for Indian lawyers," said West. "The legal needs of Indian tribes are just exploding."