The Indians called it mesabi, or sleeping giant, because that's what the deep scar left by nature on the face of the plains here reminded them of. Now the giant - a 120-mile-long lode of rich iron ore that has been feeding the nation's steel mills for nearly a century - is dozing again.

The reason is a strike by the Mesabi, Iron Range's 14,500 ore miners and processors now entering its ninth week, numbing the economy of normally prosperous range towns, shutting off two-thirds of the nation's total supply of iron for steel, complicating the future of the country's troubled steel industry and asserting the growing militancy of many younger industrial owrkers.

Negotiations to reslve 1,000 or more local contract issues were under way last week, amid some signs of progress toward a settlement, perhaps this week. "It's either this week, or a helluva long time," said Joe Samargia, president of Local 1938 of the United Steelworkers of America, the largest largest local on the range.

Thus far the strike by the iron workers' component of the USWA - the first in the steel industry since a 115-day shutdown in 1958 - appears to be hurting the range and its 117,000 residents more than the steel mills.

Unemployment is spreading, family debts are mounting, tax revenues are plumeting and anxiety is building as the possibility looms of a Minnesota winter without jobs.

"People are beginning to hurt now, and if it goes on much longer," said Stuart Murray, manager of the Minnesota Employment Service branch that serves towns like Mountain Iron, home of the huge U.S. Steel Corp.'s Minntac mining facility, the largest on the rage. Strike-related layoffs have already spread to 1,800 rail and service jobs in northeastern Minnesota, he noted.

"People aren't hyper about it yet, but . . . they feel helpless," said Craig Anderson, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce of Virginia, Minn., a normally busltling town of 12,500 that has become "stagment," according to one local banker.

"Sure, people are hurting, but we're hurting when we work, too," said Samargia, the 33-year-old president of Minntac's 3,000-member Local 1938, which, along with the other iron range locals, constitute an outpost of youthful militancy in a union that has shunned strikes in recent years in an industrywide effort to stabilize domestic stell production.

The mills will eventually need the 40 million to 50 million tons of taconite pellets - a kind of iron ore - that the range produces annually. But their immediate need is diminished by big stockpiles, lagging sales and production cutbacks illustrated by last week's announcement of planned layoffs of almost 6,000 mill workers in Ohio.

The news of the Ohio layoffs spread rapidly along the range which is a moonscape of huge pits and high piles of taconite refuse. Livelihoods are so dependent on the steel industry here that towns periodically pick up and move when iron needs to be mined beneath their foundations.

The steel industry has already invested more than $2 billion in plants to refine rock-like gray taconite into marble-sized pellets for use in making steel, and more facilities are under construction. "How can we boom if they [the steel mifts] bust?" asked one worried business is closely tied to the fortunes of teh ore processors.

Loyalty to the union runs deep amon g the descendants of Slavic and other European immigrants who organized the mines over bitter steel company opposition in the 1930s.

But as the strike drags on, expressions of support for the iron strikers are coupled with skepticism about what they will achieve, and some people are beginning to speak out against it, claiming the community as well as the strikers should have a voice in reaching a settlement.

Any zeal for community intervention was chilled, however, when Andrew SHuster, proprietor of the Sawmill Saloon in Mountain Iron, decided to hold an informal reterendum on whether the strike should continue. He placed questionnaires in local from the union than the papers' readers. "The first thing I knew they had more pickets around my saloon than they had around the mines," Shuster said.

The pickets, numbering up to 30 at a time, according to Shuster, stayed for five days before withdrawing. But most workers are still boycotting the bar and business is bad, although SHuster claims the doesn't care.

Union leaders claim the questionnaire was biased, and some townsfolk who privately sympathize with SHuster's interntions agree that his handling of it was somewhat ham-handed.But his employees, including several strikers who have taken temporary employment at the saloon, took out a newspaper ad last week supporting both the strikers and Shuster's right to speak out against the strike.

John Curphy, one of the strikers now working as a bartender at SHuster's saloon, contends that most of the iron workers would like to end the strike now but "fear that, ir they quit now, there'd be no union left."

On the picket line at Minntac, Curphy's co-workers had built a bonfire in the middle of the entrance road to the mine to ward off teh chill of the winter that is already oncoming here. They disagreed that back-to-work sentiment was growing and streesed teh importance of the strike to the union's future because of the opportunity it is giving to the new generation of steel workers to test their mettle.

"There's a real reawakening in this union," said a picket captain whow declined to give his name. "This strike happened because workers demanded it, he added, noting that the iron range overwhelmingly supported the young union militant. Edward Sadlowski, in his losing campaign for the presidency of the USWA last winter, a campaign pegged partly to opposition to the union's national "no-strike" agreement.

Under this agreement, industrywide issues such as wages and fringe benefits much be settled without a strike over plant-level problems such as safety requirements and seniority rules.

These are reportedly major areas of disagreement in the iron range strike, along with the key issue of incentive pay, which the steel companies have contended is properly a national issue and hence not a legitimate matter for local bargaining or strikes. The union, insisting that incentive pay is a local issue, has been seeking the same bonuses for increased production as are earned by steel mill workers. THis could effectively raise their hourly wages - now ranging from $6.46 to $9.13 - by 50 cents.

Presumably this issue will have to be settled by national union and industry officials, or as least with their assent.

Of the union's 1.4 million members, only about 19,000 are on strike - the Mesabi contingent plus 4,000 or so Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But industry officials have warned that the national "no-strike" agreement could be junked if it proves ineffective in curtailing strikes and resulting production losses.

"We've been the forgotten ones out here on the range," said one Minntac picket. "But maybe," he added, "the tail can wag the dog after all."