The Interior Department took another step toward resolving historic Indian land claims yesterday, asking the Justice Department to support the Catawba tribe's claim to 140,000 acres of South Carolina, including two towns.

Earlier this year, Interior recommended similar intervention in behalf of tribes in New York and Maine.

Leo M. Krulitz, Interior's solicitor, said the small Catawba tribe of about 1,200 has been seeking federal help in pressing its case since 1904.

"The action we recommend is that the United States finally act upon its long neglected duty . . ." and nullify an 1840 treaty giving the land to the state, Krulitz said.

That would restore a 1733 treaty with England under which the Catawbas gave up their claims to about 8,000 square miles of both North and South Carolina in return for a 144,000 acre reservation (about 225 square miles).

In a prepared statement, Krulitz said Interior "would prefer an amicable, orderly settlement to lengthy, disruptive litigation," and will immediately help negotiate ". . . a just and model settlement."

But he warned that if negotiations fail, he wants the Justice Department to file suit on behalf of the tribe, and he referred to the similar suits Interior has asked Justice to file in the Maine and New York state cases.

The Justice Department has not filed any of those suits yet.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said it has asked for an extension of time, until Jan. 15, 1978, to study a recommendation that the federal government give $25 million to the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot Indians of Maine, and that the state turn over 100,000 acres to them.

That recommendation was made by retired Georgia Supreme Court Judge William B. Gunter, President Carter's adviser on Indian land claims in Maine, who spent three months studying the two tribes' claim to more than 12 million acres, or 60 per cent of the state, as well as $25 billion.

In the case of claims by the Oneida Nation, and the St. Regis-Mohawk and Cayuga tribes to "extensive acreage in upstate New York," the Justice Department spokesman said, "at this time we are working with all parties involved hoping to avoid a judicial procedure."

The Catawbas are asking for a square of land 15 miles on a side containing 50,000 people, mostly whites, and the towns of Rock Hill and Fort Mill. The acreage is on the North-South Carolina border south of Charlotte, where the border jogs to the northwest around the land they claim.

In documents which they say they're prepared to file in court, the Catawbas base their claim on two things: an agreement with an Indian agent sent by the king of England in 1760 guaranteeing them a 15-mile-square sanctuary forever, and an attempt by South Carolina in 1840 to wipe out that deal with a new treaty of its own.

The legal underpinning of most Indian land claim cases goes back to the Indian Non-Intercourse Act of 1790, which held that no Indian land could be taken, leased or purchased unless specifically authorized by an act of Congress.

Krulit said the Catawabad' treaty with England was valid, and that the federal government was not involved in the 1840 treaty with South Carolina, and therefore it was invalid.

Ironically, the tiny reservation which South Carolina did set aside for the Catawbas - about 630 acres - lies in the middle of the land which they claim. It is home to only about 40 Catawba families. Tribal Chief Gilbert Blue said most of the 1,200 people listed on the tribal rolls live and work in the Rock Hill area.

Blue said yesterday, in a statement released through the Native American Rights Fund, that he is "hopeful that the recognition by the government that our claim is just and legally sound will lead to a speedy end to this controversy."

Negotiations between the Catawbas and the state began in March. Blue said at that time, "We want as much land as we can get," but added, "which land is a negotiable item. We know we're not going to get the whole 144,000 acres and the city of Rock Hill."

The tibe has talked of some of the uninhabited farmland and woods adjoining the present 630-acre reservation, and a cash grant of perhaps $20 million to be placed in trust and used to re-establish a Catawba society with schools, housing, and community services on the reservation.