When Henry Big Boy was going to school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation more than half a century ago, the Sundance ritual was outlawed and children sometimes were spanked for speaking Lakota, the language of the local Sioux tribes.

So he and his friends would sneak out into the pine-sheltered gullies, or beyond the crests of the dry, rolling hills, and make up songs and dances of their own. In this way they helped keep Indian culture alive.

Today, Henry Big Boy is back at school, this time as a teacher of Lakota traditions to first graders attending the Little Wound School here.As Big Boy and several high school-age novices pound rhythmically on a rawhide drum and give forth with a guttural war chant, young Indian children clap and dance around them.

These activities are part of a cultural revolution that began on the reservations in the 1960s and shows no sign of abating as the nation enters the uncertain political climes of the 1980s. To a considerable degree, the turnabout is a tribute to the period of Indian militancy and political activism, which hastened new federal policies that stressed Indian self-determination and cultural rights. In place of policies that had long assumed that assimilation was best for native Americans, just as it was for new Americans from Ireland or Italy, came broad acceptance of the economic and cultural autonomy of the reservations.

Under a law passed by Congress in 1975, the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington turned over the management of a number of reservation schools to Indian boards and administrators. And curricula stressing "cultural awareness" filtered down from the colleges into Indian high schools.

In the initial glow of the Indian rights movements, almost any course dealing with tribal culture was considered progressive. But with the passing of that early euphoria has come a slow and difficult search for an Indian curriculum that will stand the test of time. In the educational laboratory of the reservations, some highly committed Indian teachers and white outsiders are attempting to develop programs that go beyond the academic "basics" but also beyond the political rhetoric of the last decade. These programs stress the need to rekindle self-esteem, self-confidence and pride in tribal heritage, but also discipline and skills needed to succeed in the white man's world.

Almost inevitably, this process has brought home to the schools all the questions that have confronted Indian society since it was smashed and fragmented in the last century.

Where is the place for a gifted young Indian today? In the tribal homeland or off the reservation where the jobs and opportunities are? Does an education that deepens a young Indian's appreaciation of his heritage help resolve this conflict or only intensify it? Can even the best of schools located within isolated enclaves ever adequately prepare students for life in the non-Indian society? If Indian culture is intrinsically worth preserving, what parts of it are relevant to the education of young people growing up in the 1980s? And how can Indian history be taught honestly without arousing resentments against the white society that can be a barrier to adjusting to life away from the reservation later?

The issues also raise questions that confront all of American society, about what the goals of education should be and about the role of schools in transmitting values and qualities needed all through life.

In many ways, Little Wound School is a microcosm of the changes of the last decade. Until 1970, it was a conventional Bureau of Indian Affairs facility, concentrating on teaching children English and a few basic skills. In 1970, this community set up its first school board, a weak, advisory group that still left power in the hands of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Two years later, prodded by a local activist, Bergil Kills Straight, the board began trying to get a contact from the bureau to run the school. These efforts finally succeeded in 1977.

Little Wound is as isolated as ever in the middle of a barren, rolling South Dakota plain. But it is at the forefront of educational change. Its hallways are decorated with murals of Indian scenes, painted by Big Boy, a talented artist and musician. And in one classroom, Lakota language teacher Jerry Dearly works on vocabulary with a seventh grade class. l

From time to time, Dearly stops at a word and meanders off into stories. The word for eagle, wanpli , reminds him of the time he got close enough to one to see it feeding on its prey. This leads to a description of how Indians used to trap eagles by grabbing their claws as they reached for bait. And this in turn leads to homilies: "Mother earth feeds her own"; "never kill an eagle"; "eagles are sacred." The chidren, noisy at first, grow quiet as Dearly drifts into his anecdotes of eagles.

In another classroom, Peggy Means, wife of political activist Russell Means, teaches a political science course with a sharper edge. The subject is uranium mining companies and their plans to mine the Black Hills, to which the tribal governments have also filed claims.

Means describes community concern over the poisoning of local streams by uranium mining companies.

"We control the water but the water is contaminated," she says. "The mining companies don't follow the law. They don't have to because they're rich." At the town of Pine Ridge, she continues, requests have been made for fresh drinking water to be tucked in, "but they refused so you know they're out to kill us."

Then it is time for all the students to write a letter to the tribal government stating their position on a proposal to the tribes to sell all their interests in the Black Hills for $105 million.

The essays, well written and passionate, are turned in quickly.

"About this uranium mining garbage," writes one student have a lot more consideration for mother earth . . . Look what she's done for us. But in turn the white man takes advantage of her. They always take but don't give back."

Means defends her couse as a necessary first step to developing a strong political self-confidence.

"The first reaction is anger, the first step toward pride," she says. "A lot of this is new to the kids. They haven't heard it from their parents. Sometimes they do take it out on their white teachers . . . . They call them 'honkies,' and the teachers will come to me and say, 'You're making them racists.' I say, 'Hey, wait a minute, we didn't start the racism.' After this phase comes a sense of hopelessness, a despair that we are so small and they are so powerful. That's when you have to channel these feelings, to show that there are things that can be done through the tribal council and they can make themselves count."

Tom Allen, Little Wound's white executive director, a former Vista volunteer who came to Kyle in 1969 and is married to an Indian woman, defends the course but says emphatically, "We don't teach hatred here." The course, he says, is only one part of a program that, for the most part, emphasizes the positive.

In 1979, for example Little Wound High's track team won the class B state championship. A lot of people in the community credit Dave Archambault, an Indian who stresses tribal values in his coaching.

"When I speak to my team before: a meet I ask them to run for the good it will do for the Indian people -- to bring honor on the Lakota people, on their families, on their school and only lastly on themselves."

Not all those involved in the Pine Ridge schools are as enthusiastic as those at Little Wound about the new stress on Indian cultural values. Some feel that vocational education should b e emphasized to get kids ready for jobs. Life for teachers and counselors was easier when schools concentrated strictly on preparing Indians to become white people, and some of the old BIA teachers resent the changes.

That there are risks in the new approach is self-evident. The conflicts between Indian values, such as generosity, and white ones, such as thrift and accumulation of wealth, are real. Many Indians struggle all their lives trying to reconcile loyalty to their tribes with the go-getting, individualistic values of American society.

Yet director Allen and others at Little Wound respond that the old vocational programs often prepared kids for jobs that don't exist on the reservation, such as welding and barbering. Moreover, Allen believes the cultural programs are important because "the poverty culture in which so many Indians live has perverted true Indian values and culture -- it's told them that Indians are always drunk and late even though their ancestors had to catch buffalo or starve, and they survived."

But there is broad agreement among teachers and administrators that cultural programs alone are not enough. "We want to develop qualities of self-discipline and toughness," says Allen. We're not just trying to prepare kids for jobs, but to be better people whether they stay on the reservation or leave. We want to make them tough enough so they can stand back up again when they're knocked down, so they can survive either in Pine Ridge or Denver."

Juding the success of schools is difficult enough in regular public systems where there is a fair amount of consensus on the aims of education. But in Indian education there is a problem of "how do you keep score," as it is put by Sam Deloria, a deputy assistant secretary of the interior in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Is the criterion how many many kids finish college? How many leave the reservation? How many get jobs? How many get degrees? Or how many return to the reservation after receiving degrees?" asks Deloria.

According to the statistics that are available, American Indians have made measurable academic progress in the last decade. In 1970, according to the Department of Education, 4,271 were attending college, compared with some 20,000 today. Twenty years ago, only about 1 percent of Indians who entered first grade completed college, compared with 4 to 5 percent now. Twenty-one students from the Pine Ridge Reservation are scheduled to receive bachelor degrees from four-year colleges in 1981. And seven last year passed the South Dakota bar exams as attorneys.

The bad news, as the new Indian teachers and administrators who have returned to work on the reservation see it, is the continuing high dropout rates and the failure of too many students to finish their education or even lead meaningful lives after high school.

Steve Withorne, who counsels Indian undergraduates at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, acknowledges that there is a serious dropout problem. "When they come straight from an Indian school some tend to withdraw from the university population," he says. About 60 percent of the Indian students in the class of 1981, have dropped out. However, Withorne adds that many return later to finish.

That young Indians have problems communicating with white strangers is painfully evident during a visit to the schools. Long silences and nervous giggles greeted a reporter who tried to strike up a conversation about journalism during a classroom visit in Little Wound. Yet after class, John Bissonette had lunch with the reporter, asked penetrating questions about the presidential political campaign, spoke at length about his grandfather Luke Broken Rope, a local carpenter and major influence on his life, described a recent trip to Dallas and confided that he hoped to go to an East Coast college -- possibly the University of Rhode Island -- so as to fullfill a lifetime dream to live near the ocean.

Two years ago, school officials said, Bissonette had been on the verge of dropping out and occasionally was a troublemaker in class. Then something clicked. This year he is writing for the school newspaper and coaching younger basketball players.

"I feel the system is moving about as fast as it can go," says Little Wound director Allen. "When you take standard success indicators, we're getting some of the highest risk kids, kids from one-parent families and from homes with all the problems. When you look at the statistics they're not very encouraging. But when you look at individual cases you know there's a lot happening for kids here."