If Pocahontas were alive today she couldn't qualify for federal programs to house or educate Indians.

Her descendants, the Upper Mattaponi Indians of the Powhatan Confederation, are among 250 Indian groups, nations or confederations that are ineligible for many federal services available to Indians living on or near reservations because the government doesn't recognize them as tribes.

Seventy-five Indian groups, including the Mattaponi of St. Stephens Church, Va., the 325 Piscataway Indians of Waldorf, Md., and the 75 members of the United Rappahannock Tribe of Indian Neck, Va., are seeking that recognition through the federal acknowledgement office of the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

For many Indian groups "there is prestige and honor in having established a special government-to-government relationship with the United States," said John A. (Bud) Shapard, director of the 12-person acknowledgement office. "There are very few groups out there who are seeking recognition for the services or for money."

Nonetheless, recognition means that a tribe would share in the $920 million the BIA provides to Indian communities through programs such as public housing, law enforcement, social services, education and loan assistance. The list of recognized groups includes 281 tribes and 219 groups of Alaska natives, Eskimos and Aleuts.

From 1871, when the last Indian treaty was signed, until three years ago Indian groups had to seek federal recognition through legislation, executive orders or presidential proclamations. But in 1978 a federal court ordered the BIA to set up a system to handle petitions for recognition.

The acknowledgement office was the answer. Its task was to find Indian groups that are entitled to a special government-to-government relationship with the United States because of treaty, law or other agreement, or that deserve such a relationship because they were never given the opportunity to negotiate an agreement.

Those distinctions separate the 681,213 Indians in the recognized tribes living on or near reservations from the rest of the 1,418,195 American Indians, Alaskan natives, Eskimos and Aleuts, many of whom are assimilated into the population at large and thus are not eligible for BIA programs.

Acknowledgement office sociologist Lynn Lambert said that groups seeking recognition are diverse: some live in urban areas, others in rural regions; many retain strong cultural bonds, while others are bound by commercial activities.

To win BIA recognition, a group must demonstrate that it has maintained a continuous presence from "historical times," that the core of the tribe has lived in a specific area or in a community identified as American Indian and that it has maintained a "tribal political influence or other authority over its members."

The BIA also requires the group to provide a list of descendants from full-blooded members, prove that its members do not belong to another tribe and show that Congress has not abolished it or barred it as a recognized tribe, which has happened to seven Indian groups.

In three years, the acknowledgement office has completed work on four of its 79 petitions. Three tribes, including Virginia's Jamestown Clallam Indians, have gained recognition, while the other group, the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe in Mississippi, was rejected--told, in effect, that it was not a tribe.

Suzan Harjo, legislative liaison for the Native American Rights Fund, an Indian interest group, contends that the tribes should not be required to prove they have lived continuously in one place because the government was responsible for scattering many of them, including the Lower Muskogee Creeks, in the last century.

"But now that the game has started," Harjo says, "it the regulation really shouldn't be changed."

"The term recognition is a lousy word," complained Thomas Oxendine, a BIA spokesman and a member of North Carolina's scattered Lumbee tribe. "We at the BIA don't want to set a standard for who is and who is not an Indian" when tribes claim a membership of a certain size.

"All we do is say that the Indian tribe or group must set standards to be recognized," Oxendine said, adding that some Indian groups require their members to be full-blooded, while others accept as members those who have a single great-great-great-grandparent who was an Indian.

Shapard estimates that 30 percent of the Indian groups will gain recognition by the year 2003. The Mattaponi likely will be one of them, since they live on a reservation run by the state of Virginia.

But the road to recognition can be a hard one. The Tunica-Biloxi tribe, from Louisiana, first sought recognition in 1826. Its remaining 200 members finally won it in July, making them the 500th, and newest, federally recognized tribe.