A new energy "cartel" is forming, another chain of underdeveloped nations that are trying to gain control over their own natural resources and curb the historic exploitation by outsiders.

This one is American -- the Indian tribes of the West who sit upon vast mineral wealth in coal and uranium but have never been able to control it for their own economic development.

The Indians do not trust the energy companies, which have snookered them so often on leases in the past. The Indians do not trust the U.S. government which, as trustee for all Indian lands, is supposed to protect them from bad deals.

So 22 Indian tribes from the Navajo to the Northern Cheyenne, have formed their own energy combine and are turning for help to some folks who know how to get the job done --the oil-rich nations of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"We started searching around and found that OPEC had an analogue to what we're going through," said Peter MacDonald, the Navajo leader who is chairman of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. "Now they have struck a course of action where they have begun to capitalize on resources for their own survival. The Arab world knows that after the year 2000 the situation is going to be completely different so they want economic development now. We want the same thing."

The idea that pulled the Indian tribes together is parallel to the oil cartel's -- the only way to deal with the major corporations bidding on their resources is to follow a common set of rules on price, production control, environmental protection. Their only leverage is to refuse new leases until the common guidelines are met.

MacDonald explained:

"We know full well we do not come as equals when we sit down to bargain with Peabody Coal or Exxon or the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Arizona or New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. We are not equal in knowledge, in staff, in resources. That is why we formed our own native American OPEC."

The council -- to be financed with $200,000 from the BIA and the Economic Development Administration --intends to begin its own inventory of Indian resources, a first step toward figuring out its role in the future energy market.

The present data are sketchy but impressive: Indians own anywhere from 7 to 13 per cent of potential U.S. reserves in coal and perhaps one-third of the Western coal which will be strip-mined in the years ahead. The reservations hold 42 billion barrels of oil reserves and a huge potential in uncharted uranium reserves.

In the meantime, the council's leaders have been talking discreetly to several OPEC representatives and intend to hold future meetings to hear how those 13 nations put their cartel together and learned to negotiate successfully with the global oil companies. MacDonald won't talk about that.

If an Indian OPEC sounds faintly un-American, the idea is actually as American as Texas chili. The origins of OPEC began 15 years ago with Venezuelan experts studing the Texas oil wells and effectively kept prices up for American domestic oil. A network of state and federal laws supported this price-setting device -- one reason why OPEC members are not much impressed by American sermons against cartels.

American Indians are represented on the council's executive board by these tribal leaders.

Gov. Rowland Johnson of the Laguna Pueblo. New Mexico: Allen Rowland of the Northern Cheyenne, Montana; Wayne Ducheneaux of the Cheyenne River Sioux, South Dakota: Earl Old Person of the Blackfeet, Montana; Pat Stands Over Bull of the Crow. Montana and Sylvester Tinker of the Osage, Oklahoma.

The Arabs, MacDonald said, "understand it very well -- that we have a culture and a language and we're trying to preserve it just as they are." The Indians advised President Carter last spring that they were making "feelers" to OPEC and asked for their own meeting with him to discuss their goals.

But the Indians face many problems OPEC did not have to worry about. For one thing the Middle East oil is such a hugh share of the world's supply that once the OPEC nations were together on controlling the world market, they had enormous leverage. The resources of American Indians, large as they are, are not as pivotal.

"We have to develop some guidelines for minimum amounts which all of us will stick together on against the companies," MacDonald said, "instead of each tribe working in the dark. If necessary, we all may have to withhold until we get the right deal."

The problem is that the West has another large landowner who also owns vast acreage of coal and uranium -- the federal government. Federal leases could be issued in such abundance that it would be difficult for the tribes to have much impact.

A more immediate problem is that a large portion of the Indian minerals is already leased to oil and mining companies -- usually at terms that the Indians find grossly unfair.

The Navajos, for instance, leased to Peabody Coal the huge Four Corners, N.M., site a decade ago when the price of coal was $4.67 a ton. The tribal royalty was 15 cents a ton. Now the price of coal is $18 a ton and likely to go much higher in the years ahead, but the Navajos are stuck with the 15-cent royalty. The lease has no clause to provide for escalating prices.

Many Indian leases negotiated by the BIA in the past contain an extraordinary clause which allows the companies to continue mining indefinitely -- "as long hereafter as minerals are produced in paying quantities."

"Our trustee, the government, doesn't have the expertise they need to negotiate with the oil companies," MacDonald said, a complaint share by many tribes.

Some tribes are trying to break old leases or force the companies to renegotiate. They are relying less on the BIA's advice in negotiating new leases. The new council is supposed to improve their leverage or at least their knowledge of what is at stake in future energy profits.

"We're talking about production control, price control as well as tribal control so that we could do it all ourselves," MacDonald said. "The only way we can do that is to have long-term monitoring of the world market not only today but for the future."