FORT RAE, NORTHWEST TERRITORIES -- It is illegal to sell, buy, possess or drink alcohol in this modern Indian town in the Canadian sub-Arctic. A security force searches incoming cars for forbidden bottles. The sentries arrest even those on whose breath they detect the faintest odor of liquor.

The hard-nosed 32-year-old tribal chieftain, Joe Rabesca, says he has helicoptered a few of the chronic alcoholics in Fort Rae out to the distant wilderness in the hope that they might be rehabilitated by leading the traditional native life of hunting and trapping. He said they went voluntarily, but sneaked back later to resume drinking.

The scourge of alcohol is the most debilitating of the problems besetting the Canadian north as the formerly nomadic societies here are yanked rudely into the modern age.

Sixteen of the 61 communities of the Northwest Territories have imposed outright prohibition. Eighteen other towns or hamlets have enacted some form of rationing, such as limits on the amount of liquor that can be purchased by one person in a day.

Other communities have resurrected a form of the once dreaded official "Indian list." Years ago, that official registry of persistent troublemakers was regarded as an affront to Indian dignity, because it was devised and administered by the white Canadians in the south. Now that natives have gained limited self-rule, local councils are reviving the practice under the new name of an "interdict" list as they face the problem of alcoholism.

"It just keeps getting worse," Fort Rae Chief Rabesca said. "The ones that just got to have that drink get it somehow." This town hosted athletic games this summer that brought in contestants from around the area. Of the 2,500 guests, 109 were jailed for violating the ban on alcohol.

Rabesca said the penalties do not really deter the cleverest of smugglers and bootleggers who surreptitiously ply their trades here. Others here say the community has been successful not in eradicating the problem but diminishing it by driving it underground.

Almost a tenth of the residents of the Northwest Territories is jailed at least once annually for public drunkenness. Murders, forgeries and muggings are rare occurrences, but assaults are common.

Indian women who are battered by their husbands are beginning to go public. Sgt. Al Kirbyson of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who has served 17 years in the Canadian north, cited numerous cases of "drunks coming home, smashing furniture, smashing store windows, kicking over the garbage bin.

"I have seen the odd time when the fridge or television set was thrown out the window," he said.

An Indian mother wrote recently to a weekly newspaper, "I was an alcoholic once. But finally, I started to realize why I was drinking every weekend. I started by asking myself, 'Why do I have to get up in the morning with a headache and I don't feel like a human being at all?'

"Your kids get scared of you when you are drinking and they run away to their aunt's and uncle's or to their grandfather's . . . . So if you have kids, please don't drink, for their sake. When they grow up, they are going to do the same thing."

Dr. Ross Wheeler, the chairman of the Alcohol and Drug Coordinating Council here, said that at age 6 some youngsters sniff gasoline. Linda Gray, who is part Indian and runs an alcohol program at the Tree of Peace settlement house in Yellowknife, said natives use shaving lotion, hair spray, strained shoe polish, typewriter cleaner and diluted Lysol -- "anything that will alter their state of mind" -- as common substitutes for alcohol.

The suicide rate in the territories is nearly three times the Canadian national average. Imports of studded black leather and skull-and-bones emblems are popular with teen-agers. "Death is the in-thing," Gray said.

In the United States, the death rate from alcohol-related causes -- primarily automobile accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, suicide and homicide -- is more than three times higher among American Indians than among the rest of the population, the Department of Health and Human Services said in a 1985 report. Alaskan natives, who make up 17 percent of the state's population, account for 60 percent of its alcohol-related deaths, the report said.

No one knows exactly why American Indians appear to have such high rates of alcoholism. "Everyone agrees it's multifaceted and that it has something to do with poverty, lack of education and the community disintegration that occurred long ago," said Phyllis Eddy of the U.S. Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse in the Indian Health Service.

There is some evidence that genetics plays a role. Alcoholism tends to run in families among Indians as well as other groups.

"We are a people who lost our own land," said Stephen Kakfwi, an elected representative in the Northern Territories legislature and one of the top native political leaders in Canada. "The bottom fell out of our economy of hunting and trapping. Children were taken from parents and sent off to {Catholic missionary} residential schools. Our language was discouraged by priests and nuns. It wasn't hard to despair. People took a kicking for a long, long time."

But when pressed about what he, as a leader, intends to do about the problem, Kakfwi ducked, then confessed disarmingly that he had avoided talking about alcoholism until recently because he has been battling the disease himself.

"I was drinking a lot," he said in an uncharacteristically subdued voice. "My family, my work, my health started to suffer. I had no choice. I quit drinking. I had a good talk with the chiefs. Basically, I told them I had a problem with alcohol. I told them I had undergone treatment. I told them I was prepared to keep working with them but I was prepared to resign. They commended me for what I had done and said that they wished more young leaders would do the same."

The association of Indian tribal chiefs in the western portion of the territories recently rebuked members who missed meetings because they were sleeping off a drinking bout or who showed up inebriated. The association threatened to force them to pay their own expenses, including transportation home.

The purveyor of alcohol in the Northwest Territories, as in the rest of Canada, is the government. Profits from the sales amount to about $7 million a year, a substantial portion of the locally generated revenue from a territorial economy with a population of about 53,000. Dr. Wheeler said he has been unable to calculate the millions spent to cope with the effects.

Although the native communities are most affected, whites suffer the consequences of alcohol as well.

The population of Yellowknife, the administrative center of the western region of the Northwest Territories, is roughly 11,000. There are 30 bars or other establishments serving alcohol, and they do brisk business. Once a year, a prize is awarded by sponsors of the "Yellowknife Pub Crawl" to the first in the droves who race to down drinks at each bar.

Not long ago, Wheeler said, the government liquor store in Yellowknife filled an order for 97 cases of alcohol requested by some residents of the Arctic Circle hamlet of Cambridge Bay, population 800. "What happened is that the portion of the community that got drunk got drunk for a week. When the last bottle was empty, the party was over."

In another hamlet, two intoxicated teen-agers racing snowmobiles collided and were killed when their machines exploded. These consequences, government liquor board marketing manager Ron Coutoreille said, are not "in our jurisdiction."

The cost of living varies widely here, depending on the distance north, but the prices of liquor are standardized regardless of the freight cost.

Frobisher Bay, the administrative center for the eastern Arctic, banned the sale of alcohol -- but not the possession of it -- several years ago. But the extension of two or three daily flights to the town has made it possible to order same-day service from Montreal. Authorities here say they believe that the flights are beginning to bring in marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

Alcoholics Anonymous groups appear to have worked more effectively than other efforts. But the overall success of treatment programs, Wheeler said, is "mixed, real mixed."

At the Tree of Peace settlement house, program coordinator Gray measured progress in very small steps. "If I see a person change their life style in any form or fashion, to me, we've been successful."