The United States is following the logic of self-defeat in Nicaragua. Recently, while traveling clandestinely in that country, I realized that one force, without any outside support whatsoever, had waged a five-year, armed resistance against the Marxist-led government. It is made up of American Indians fighting under the banner of an organization known as Misurasata.

The Reagan administration claims its objective in Central America is the transformation or overthrow of the Sandinista government. Yet it restricts its material support to the contras, an odd assortment of supposed "freedom fighters" waging an unsuccessful guerrilla war against Managua from Honduras. Such a policy is nonsense in terms of both strategic military and economic planning, virtually guaranteeing that the use of American troops will eventually be required to change the course of the Sandinista regime.

The reason for this odd situation is that the resistance fighters inside Nicaragua are American Indians of the Miskito, Sumu and Rama nations on the Atlantic coast. Rallying behind their representative politico-military organization, Misurasata, and enlisting allies from the region's Creole and Ladino communities, the Indians are struggling for preservation of their own autonomy and self-determination. Hence, the wizards of the State Department have deemed Misurasata unacceptable.

The magnitude of the error involved in this position -- which is manifestly more anti-Indian than anticommunist -- is readily evident. While the Reagan-backed contra units are collapsing in the field, Misurasata has managed to secure the bulk of the traditional Atlantic coast Indian territory against ground invasion by Sandinista troops.

I personally witnessed the massive Indian support to Misurasata, which allows it to maintain 2,000 to 3,000 warriors on the basis of materials captured from the Nicaraguan army. I witnessed firsthand the fact that the Indians control not only the land within their territory but also the rivers and logistics all along the Atlantic Coast.

I also experienced firsthand the nature of Managua's response to the effectiveness of Indian resistance. Unable to maneuver on the ground within Indian territory, they have resorted to air strikes and helicopter assaults on villages and other civilian targets, as well as attempting a blockade by sea. I have seen the mass graves that result and have documented accounts from 28 different villages concerning the Sandinista program of torture and execution intended to terrorize the Indians into submission to centralized rule. This policy of terror has backfired on Managua.

The level of Indian resistance is such that with proper material support Misurasata could immediately field at least 15,000 warriors and fully liberate Indian territories -- about a third of Nicaragua -- in a matter of months. In a meeting with me on March 3, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliot Abrams agreed that Misurasata is a major factor in anti-Sandinista resistance, but suggested the Indians should abandon their own agenda and merge with the contras as a prerequisite to receiving any sort of American support.

Specifically, Abrams felt it appropriate that Misurasata put itself under Kisan, a tiny "Indian" contra group based in Honduras and unable to show support of any kind from the Indian communities of Nicaragua. It is interesting to note that, while the U.S. State Department promotes Kisan as a "legitimate Indian voice," so does Managua, a situation that suggests the lengths to which Washington is prepared to go to avoid the emergence of any true expression of Indian sovereignty in this hemisphere.

My response to Abrams is that no such political strings were attached to congressional allocation of $27 million in humanitarian aid last year. It is precisely this sort of manipulation and compulsory political subordination that caused the Indian resistance to Sandinista policies in the first place. There is no reason to expect them to be more willing to accept such behavior from Washington than from Managua. If by some fluke the contras were able to unseat the Sandinistas tomorrow, they too would have to deal with Indian rights to autonomy and self-determination on the Atlantic coast.

There has been a lot of talk lately about "being on the right side of history" where Nicaragua is concerned. Indeed, a crossroads has been reached. America now has the opportunity to cross over from the side of history that has been marked by the genocide of Indian peoples for 500 years and which is evident today in the looming forced relocation of 10,000 traditional Navajos from their Arizona homeland, the similar forced relocation of the James Bay Cree inCanada, the slaughter of the Ache people in Paraguay, the decimation of the Indians of Brazil and Guatemala, and the counterinsurgency warfare directed at the Indians of Nicaragua.

The alternative is to remain on the side of history marked by the European world view, to insist that Indians are inherently subordinate to non-Indians, and that they are ultimately expendable peoples.

A decision to remain on this latter side of history will not only be morally wrong, but, for once, politically, economically and militarily unworkable as well. It carries with it a greatly increased likelihood that direct U.S. military intervention will be necessary to effect change in Managua. The sole other option will be to admit, once and for all, that the United States prefers any European-derived form of government -- even a Marxist-Leninist one -- to the true exercise of Indian sovereignty.

I will put it clearly: there is a choice that must be made by Ronald Reagan or the American people. They must decide whether thecontinued suppression of Indian rights is worth the risk of another Vietnam-type quagmire, with all the human and financial cost this entails, or whether they are finally willing to accept that notions of freedom and democracy must inevitably include Indians.