Give us just three years," said Patrick Stands Over Bull, tribal chairman of the 4,300 Crow Indians who live scattered across the gently undulating prairie vastness of this southern Montana reservation.

"Three more years," predicted the 36-year-old Indian leader, "and if things fall into place our people will at last get a chance to be on top for a change."

It has been a long time since such optimistic words have been spoken among the Indians who make up most fo the population of this rural area - probably not since Lt. Col. George Custer led the horse soldiers of the 7th Cavalry into the disastrous confrontation here 101 years ago that left his name and that of the Little Big Horn as symbols of Indian defiance.

This time, however, it is coal rather than guns that has touched off the hopes of the Crow and their Indian neighbors, the Northern Cheyenne.

Beneath their side-by-side reservations in southern Montana lies as much as 5 per cent of all the nation's mineable coal.

Although they are geographically and geologically neighbors, there is little else that is similar between the Crow and the Nortern Cheyenne. Historically, Crows were among Custer's scouts, while Cheyenne made up part of the war party that destroyed the cavalry unit. Since then Crows have carried a reputation as a tribe friendly to non-Indians, and the Cheyenne have been far more aloof and sometimes hostile to outsiders.

That difference still holds true with regard to coal development. While Crow leaders praise the idea of stripmining, the Northern Cheyenne are almost unanimously against immedate development of any of the 5 billion tons reserves that lie under their 443,000-acre reservation.

The only things the two tribes seem to have in common are being among the smallest and poorest in the nation with seasonal unemployment 70 per cent on both reservations in the winter. That and the fact that each, in its own separate fashion, is planning to use the huga coal reserves to establish a power base.

At the tribal offices in a wings of the Cro-owned Sun God Motel here, Sam Boggess, a member of the tribe's Natural Resource Energy Committee, said the Crow would like to set up their own mining operation. That could be accomplished he said, with the purchase of stockholder control in an existing mining company.

But tribal officials estimate it would take $200 million to do this. The tribe has already begun seeking financial backing for such a venture with their coal as collateral.

In the past, said Boggess, a 39-year-old retired U.S. Army officer with a master's degree in business administration, "Indians have been under the control of the federal government and there's been an almost ingrained reflex among our people to let the government lease out our land and resources to the white man. But then you pay the terrible price of losing control over your only assets."

Over the years nearly 45 per cent of the 2.2-million-acre Crow reservation has been sold to non-Indians. In addition, since 1968 the tribe has granted mineral mining or exploration leases on portions of its 15 to 18 billion tons of coal covering 235,000 acres of its land. Leases have been made with such energy development giants as Shell, Amax, Gulf, Westmoreland and the Peabody Coal Co., although only Westmoreland is now mining any Crow coal.

The Crow have sought to have the leases voided in all but the case of Westmoreland, and former Interior Secretary Thomas S. Kleppe ruled that no energy company can possess a lease for more than 2,560 acres of Crow land. Shell, with more than 30,000 acres under lease, and Amax, which holds leases on 14,000 acres of Crow land, are challenging Kleppe's ruling in federal court.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders here have hired a dozen "public relations men" fluent both in Crow dialect and English to circulate among the farflung tribal members and convince them of the virtues of coal exploitation. The tribe will vote at its quarterly tribal council meeting here July 9 on what form of coal development to undertake, said Tribal Chairman Stands.

Meanwhile, tribal leaders worry about the effect of the policies they are advocating.

Massive coal development either on the reservation or on adjoining land where the Crow still hold mineral rights could bring an annual $50.000 income for tribal families now earning an average of less than $3,500.

"That kind of a jump in income, coming all at once, could destroy our tribe," said a Crow official.

Some senior tribal members are hopeful that the impact from coal exploitation can be channeled into tribal mining company.

"We're trying to study just what will happen, and we're seeking some good advice to make sure we don't blow that whole thing to hell," said Rbet (Jiggs) Yellowtail, chairman of the Crow Coal Authority. The group is one of several within the Crow Tribe set up to study future coal development.

Meanwhile, sometime in the next year, probably next spring the Northern Cheyenne will vote in a reservation-wide referedum on what to do about their coals. Cheyenne Tribal Chairman Allen Rowland predicted during an interview that coal development would be overwhelmingly rejected by the tribe.

"If the tribal members want to tear up the reservation, it's their decision," he said. But Rowland, who is in his third four-year term as leader of the 3,700-member Northern Cheyenne tribe, said he opposes mining the reservation's coal reserves, and he said most of the rest of his tribe agrees with him.

That does not mean that the Cheyenne are ignoring their mineral wealth. The tribe has formed the Northern Cheyenne Research Project to study the best way to control reservation resources such as minerals, air and water.

"We want to make our own decisions and our own mistakes instead of letting the Bureau of Indian Affairs or some other federal agency make our mistakes for us," Rowland said.

If that happens it could drastically alter the way all Indians across the country will live in the future, since a variety of federal agencies now have the final say over allocation of many Indian resources.

"Tribes all across the country are waiting to see what we do with this," Rowland said.

The presence of so much mineral wealth in the form of coal has given the Cheyenne a strong voice with which to make their demand for additional self-determination, said the tribal chairman. "Indians own 30 per cent of the coal in the Western energy belt," Rowland said. "I think that gives us the right to sit down with the President and be heard."

The first step in the Cheyenne master plan was implemented when the tribe ptitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration last year for a Class I air designation over their reservation. The present Class II air designation allows some pollution, but the Cheyenne fear their air will become badly polluted once off reservation coal development picks up.

That petition, which is expected to be acted upon by the EPA this month, could bring coal development to a halt not just on the Cheyenne reservation but asound it as well. Most seriously affected would be a giant coalfired power complex now under construction by a conserdum of power companies at Colstrip, Ment., just a few miles outside the life on their reservation. "Ive been to Appalachia," said Rowland, "and I know what coal development can do. "To me it looks like hell."