WITH its passel of Academy Award nominations, the epic movie ``Dances With Wolves'' has succeeded - as Hollywood's image machine uniquely can - in thrusting Indians into the foreground of American consciousness. That's all to the good, seeing that native Americans customarily occupy a place in national thinking as remote as the desolate reservations many occupy in life. The sympathy for Indians touched off by ``Dances With Wolves'' is likely to be ephemeral. There are, though, less dramatic but more solid grounds for hope that native Americans are entering a new phase in their relations with the wider culture. Perhaps these small but progressive developments will lay the groundwork for a fuller restitution of the rights and dignity wrenched from the first Americans by Anglo expansion.
These possible signs of the times include:
A marked increase in the number of Americans who identified themselves as Indians in the 1990 census. Though still incomplete, census results show a 38 percent increase since 1980 in the respondents who voluntarily acknowledged their Indian ancestry. Some of the rise is attributable to births, but many of the ``new'' Indians are people who previously concealed their heritage. Also, Indian tribes report a sharp rise in applications for enrollment. Perhaps reflecting heightened ethnic self-awareness thro ughout American culture, Indian pride is surging.
Indian tribes have won greater rights to recover ancestral remains and sacred religious and burial artifacts from museums. The excavation of Indian burial sites by archaeologists or fortune-seekers has long been a sore issue with native Americans. As a result of bills passed by Congress in 1989 and 1990, museums and collections that receive federal money are required to repatriate certain remains and artifacts to Indians who satisfy nonstringent tests. Last week, the board of the Smithsonian's new Nati onal Museum of the American Indian widened its repatriation policy to some remains and artifacts not covered by the legislation.
The Smithsonian's new museum itself, which will open over the next few years, should help raise awareness of Indians.
Most important, Washington seems increasingly willing to change the ways it has administered Indian affairs for more than a century. Seven Indian tribes are currently engaged in a three-year experiment in self-government. The tribes' leadership has taken over many functions of the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs. In other ways, as well, the BIA professes a new openness to Indian thinking - although Indian leaders still complain that the bureau takes too many actions by fiat and too few i n meaningful consultation.
The United States still has a long way to go in granting full civil, social, and economic rights to Indians. But maybe - in ways far more significant than the box-office appeal of ``Wolves'' - the country has turned a corner.