The inclusion of multicultural themes has become a trend in books for children and young adults. While stories on various races and ethnic groups are nothing new, the number of books published has burgeoned, and the criteria for evaluation have become strict in the adherence to realistic images. The ultimate goal of multicultural literature is to assist in building respect across cultures while sharpening sensitivity toward all individuals.

American Indians have often suffered from stereotypical portrayal in literature, both in fiction and picture books, with at least three distorted viewpoints. First, the American Indian has been depicted as inferior to the white culture - subservient and dependent. White people were portrayed as knowing best how to educate the American Indians and teach them values.Second, the American Indian was often portrayed as a whooping, befeathered person who attacked and menaced others or who was a silent, childlike creature whose stoicism connoted pride. Derogatory and demeaning terminology such as "bucks," "squaws" and "papooses," with caricatures of "red skins" wearing only loin cloths, was belittling. Also, the dialogue was often done in halting one-syllable words called "Tonto language." Some literature compared American Indians to animals because of their alliance with nature.

Third, the spiritual and ceremonial beliefs of the American Indian were viewed as quaint with customs that lacked scientific knowledge. These beliefs were often scorned through misuse of spiritual objects such as sacred feathers. (How often we see kindergarten and first-graders with paper feathers of all colors in a headband!) The artistic skills were often diluted to meager scratches.

This column - the first of two parts - will discuss some of the recent books about the American Indian, including nonfiction and fiction, that are currently being published for young readers. In each, accurate and respectful images are portrayed. American Indians are viewed as unique individuals who have their own thoughts, emotions and philosophies. Physical diversities are well-explained. American Indians are treated in authentic settings - past and present - that rectify historical distortions and omissions. Dialect is not degrading, and the changing status of the contemporary American Indian, especially women, is treated fairly. The following three books feature the American Indian and environmental issues:

THE WAY OF THE EARTH: NATIVE AMERICA AND THE ENVIRONMENT by John Bierhorst. Morrow, 1994. 329 pages, $15.

"In the old days, when talking to children, a Lakota elder would place a hand on the ground and explain: `We sit in the lap of our Mother. . . . We shall soon pass, but the place where we now rest will last forever.' "

American Indian prophecies and traditions recognized that the Earth would end. Some tribes said it would end gradually; others believed it would be like the "Great Flood" and happen quickly. Still others set an actual date. Whatever the time, it was believed to be preceded with omens.

Bierhorst has collected American Indian wisdom of the Earth told through anecdotes, myths, legends and parables. Some of these traditions deal with the Earth's beginning, such as the legend of Coyote who arranges the physical world and establishes customs. Other stories approach the Earth's past and future and the "renewal" that is universally agreed upon.

One of the fascinating sections, "Restraint," talks of the consumer as ritualist, the wilderness and the control over life. Each tribute has some sort of punishment for waste of resources. The notion of "killing for sport" is not an American Indian ideology. Reseeding, leaving part of the plant, rituals associated with animal killing and the processes of fallowing are all prompted by the various cultures.

But these traditions are not necessarily adhered to in today's world. When speaking of the Tucanoan fisheries, anthropologist Janet Chernela says, "The lapse is no doubt attributable to modern schooling, which as elsewhere in the hemisphere, takes children out of the home and undermines native values."

Bierhorst objectively delineates the legends, but underscoring each is the message that the environment needs protection and care. "How long will the earth endure the presence of humans? Can something be done to lessen the harmful effects? One answer is that human beings can make amends for their offenses. Another is that they may exert themselves to prolong the earth's life. Still another is they may restore the earth to its youthful condition. Each of these approaches is represented in Native American testimony."

Two novels that capture this message in different eras and settings are SO SINGS THE BLUE DEER by Charmayne McGee (Atheneum, 1994, 186 pages, $14.95) and Monte Killingsworth's CIRCLE WITHIN A CIRCLE (Macmillan/Margaret McElderry Books, 1994, 139 pages, $14.95).

McGee writes of the Huichole Indian village of northwestern Mexico where the tribe laments that there are no more deer in the mountains. There had been a long tradition surrounding these animals as the sacrifices to the spirit gods. Without the white-tailed god-deer, the village has lost its delicate environmental balance. The Earth is not producing enough for maintenance and "the Huicholes could no longer perform the ceremonial rituals that perpetuated life and rejuvenated nature." The people believe that if the deer could return, the Earth will be restored.

The Mexican government offers 20 white-tailed deer to the Huicholes, and 13-year-old Moon Feather, grandson of the Great Shaman, is chosen to accompany the elders who will return the deer to the village.

This is Moon Feather's exploration beyond his isolated mountain village as he seeks the truth about the Aztecs, his forefathers, and the legacy of the white-tailed deer.

While the characters are fictional, "So Sings the Blue Deer" is based on a true story. In author's notes, McGee says, "The government of the state of Nayarit, Mexico, has now signed an agreement with the Cousteau Society . . . which is called the Master Plan for Tourism and Ecological Development. . . . It will assure that the environmental integrity of the coastal areas and the territory of the Huichole Indians will be safeguarded."

McGee pursued a master's at the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and established the department of photography at the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in San Miguel. Besides researching the myths of the Indians of Central America, she is a freelance photojournalist.

Killingsworth approaches his novel from a different angle. As a teacher he uses his storytelling ability to make his ideas work for middle-school students.

"Circle Within a Circle" is the story of Chris, who has bolted repeatedly from foster homes. On his most recent escape he meets Chopper, a Chinook Indian en route from an engineering job in New Mexico. Chopper drives a souped-up VW bus and is headed to sacred beach property - part of the Indian territory - that is being cleared for condominiums and a golf resort.

This novel spans only five days, but it is a lifetime for 14-year-old Chris, who finds trust in others and himself. Chopper takes on the name Coyote and succeeds in stopping the construction, but he also finds what is important in life, which is not his work as a scientist in New Mexico.

The title comes from the salmon-eye ring Chopper gives Chris (who is called Quiet Water): "You have learned in school that the life of the salmon is a circle: It goes from its birthplace somewhere in a creek or stream . . . then back again to the exact spot of its birth. . . . It's a wonderful story but it is not correct. The story of the salmon is not a circle; it is two circles. Like the eye, look at your ring: a circle within a circle."

"Circle Within a Circle" should be read at least twice to capture the symbolism of water, stars, social issues and imagery. It is subtle but certainly not lacking in power. This is a wonderful read-aloud book for older listeners, ages 8 through 14.