The hero of this first novel is Sam Houston Leaping Deer, a young Indian basketball player. His high school coach persuades his father to let Sam leave the Alabama Coushatta reservation in Texas and accept a scholarship to the University of Illinois, blithely misrepresenting the university as ''Indian-oriented,'' with a basketball team totally composed of Indians.
Thus Sam sets off on a bus trip to Illinois, donning his ''talking-to-whites'' face and doing a lot of nodding. ''In most of Sam's encounters,'' writes author Gerald Duff, ''he had found it impossible to know how to respond to the questions the whites put to him, so through a long process of trial and error he had settled on nodding his head frequently . . . .'' One woman asks him what to do if lost in the wilderness; realizing a nod won't suffice, Sam carefully answers, ''Go to sleep, and then go home.''
When Sam reaches the university, he discovers he is the only Indian on the basketball team. The best player in high school, he now becomes a sensation in college, setting a scoring record in his very first game. He's a natural, his attitude mystical: ''Circle needed circle. The ball stirred alive in his hands, found its true weight and balance, and focused its roundness into its float toward roundness.''
Away from the basketball court, however, Sam finds everything strange and out of balance - the classes, the teachers, the students, the parties, even the campus's few Indians themselves. They invite him to join the RAMS (Red American Movement Students), an invitation he declines. His wonderment and honest appraisal allow us to view the most ordinary scenes afresh: ''Sam could see a large green yard filled with people throwing plastic saucers back and forth to each other.''
This is tricky stuff to write well, for, although we have entered Sam's mind, at any moment we might be jarred into feeling patronizing toward him. Mr. Duff gets onto thin ice on other occasions, too, but he never falls through. There is danger in the use of nature images linked to Sam's Indian background, yet they do not become heavy-handed and most often are a surprise. ''The bobbing heads, moving up and down randomly in the dim light from the streetlights and the solid line of car headlights, looked like the surface of Lake Tejas being broken up into rises and depressions by a heavy rain.'' Indian legends are told, the novel's chapters bearing such titles as ''How Fire Came'' and ''Why Opossum's Tail is Bare.'' Although the legends could be boring and their symbolism heavy-handed, this too is a danger Duff skillfully avoids. Ironic and funny, with a finale that is as sad as it is hilarious, ''Indian Giver'' is a fine addition to the long shelf of coming-of-age novels.