DULUTH, MINN. -- A patchwork of Native American color is appearing on the nation's highways, as state vehicle license plates make way for tribal counterparts emblazoned with eagles, shields, horses and symbolic thunderbirds.

Since the Red Lake Chippewas issued the first tribal plate in 1974 and were upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court, more than a dozen Native American tribes have followed suit, most in the last three years.

They regulate registration, design and issue plates and seek reciprocity agreements with states. Where a state's name normally appears on the standard 7-by-12-inch plates are tribal names such as Menominee, Absentee Shawnee, Kiowa and Turtle Mountain.

Most of the nation's 300 tribes may well have such plates within the next decade, and this prompts strong resistance by some states and delight among license-plate collectors.

"They're really in demand," said Milton Hill, a collector here. "People from as far away as Australia write, asking me to assist in making swaps -- country plate for tribal plate."

European aficionados regularly order collector plates from the Devil's Lake Sioux tribe, according to tribal registrar Maxine Foss.

The greater value of tribal plates, however, is that they are a public declaration and practical exercise of tribal government sovereignty, said Roger Jourdain, former Red Lake tribal chairman who developed the license-plate idea in the 1950s.

Red Lake residents, he said, were spared the higher cost of the state plate and the 6 percent state sales tax for transferring titles, and the tribe, not the state, received the registration fee.

Tribal assumption of vehicle-licensing authority is part of a whirlwind of contemporary developments spinning out new definitions of state and tribal jurisdiction. In court and in negotiation, lines of authority are being drawn daily in such matters as taxation, zoning, gambling, business, natural resources, welfare and courts.

"Every tribe, in my understanding, can issue title registrations and license plates," said Marlene Swanson, director of driver and vehicle services for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. "But some states disagree. . . . In Minnesota, we're convinced that we should build the same reciprocity with tribes as we do with any other state or {Canadian} province. If we can drive in their territory, they can drive in ours."

Marge Anderson, secretary-treasurer for the Mille Lacs Chippewa tribe, said Swanson's office has offered technical training to tribal officials and helps them to develop fraud-proof systems of vehicle registration.

"We were in a six-month negotiation process with the state," she said. "They had faith in us and were willing to recognize our sovereign status. They had some concerns that we were able to resolve -- the major one was titles. I guess they thought the reservation could be a safe haven for cars that were stolen."

Likewise, in North Dakota, from the attorney general's office through the motor vehicle department to highway troopers, everyone has been "very helpful," Foss said. "We have no trouble at all with the state."

In South Dakota, however, Oglala Sioux who drive off their reservation with only tribal plates are likely to be arrested, said Gerald Big Crow, a tribal councilor. So members display state and tribal plates, he said.

"South Dakota . . . doesn't want to recognize us," he said. "They think of us as nobodies. They treat us like little kids."

Larry Zwemke, director of the motor vehicle division of the state's Department of Revenue, said South Dakota laws require that vehicle-registration fees go to counties for road maintenance. "This state has decided they would not honor reservation plates," he said.

South Dakota does, however, honor tribal plates from other areas, where state-tribal reciprocity agreements are in place.

In Oklahoma, tribal members have trouble trying to sell a car to a non-member. The Oklahoma Tax Commission will not authorize such title transfer until the state is paid for previous title transfers, said David Miley, assistant general counsel for the commission.

"When you operate a car in Oklahoma, you have to pay the state taxes," he said. "The tribal title is not a good one. You need state title."

Oklahoma honors foreign vehicle titles, and the commission would transfer a foreign title, Miley said.

It would not, however, be likely to honor or transfer a title registered with a tribe from another state, even if that state honored it, he said. "We generally don't recognize Indian plates," he said.

The Sac and Fox tribe is suing the Oklahoma Tax Commission in federal court over the issue.

Minnesota's Swanson said she thinks that some resistance to tribal licensing occurs because states do not want to yield power to tribes and because of racism.

Swanson said that when she brought a tribal administrator to a meeting of the nation's motor vehicle administrators, the reaction "was not as if it were Sweden -- 'Welcome, how nice.' It was 'What? An Indian tribe? No! This is never going to happen.' "

But tribes eventually will join national and international motor vehicle boards and participate in developing professional guidelines, she predicted.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota judge who decided the Red Lake case here 16 years ago has become a tribal court judge who travels four states.

"This case was one of the most interesting I'd handled," said Patrick O'Brien, who grew up next to a reservation near here. "Until then, I didn't realize that Indian tribes had rights. I thought a tribe was just a bunch of Indians living on a reservation, subject to state law."

O'Brien said he would be "willing to bet" that nearly every tribe in the country will be issuing license plates in the next five or 10 years.