EVEN as a replica of the Santa Maria prepared to sail across the Atlantic Ocean this week - just one of a slew of events designed to honor Christopher Columbus's landing in 1492 - hundreds of Indians were working furiously here to put a lid on the pomp and circumstance they say demoralizes their people."It has been a dream for many of us for years to join together like this to acknowledge the tears of our grandfathers ... it is a historic moment," says Rigoberta Menchu, a descendant of the Mayan people who ruled parts of this Central American country before Columbus arrived, and a leader of indigenous Guatemalans. "We are asking the people of the world to love not only prehistoric monuments," she says, "but also the descendants of original civilizations of our countries that built those monuments." Ms. Menchu is one of 500 native Americans from 27 nations who met at a "Continental Encounter" that concluded Oct. 13, a day before the Columbus Quincentennial year was kicked off in cities from Columbus, Ohio, to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. To many, the voyage of Columbus shaped forever the course of science, geography, law, and religion. His journey led to a European invasion that produced the United States. But to others, mostly native Americans, his arrival is synonymous with the start of hemispheric genocide. "The Spaniards trampled our temples and took our best lands," says Juana Vasquez, a Quiche Mayan Indian. "Everything of value to us, everything fundamental to our lives, was destroyed." Ms. Vasquez and other native Americans, who came from as far as Arizona and Brazil, distributed fliers saying, "Wanted: Christopher Columbus ... for grand theft, genocide, racism, initiating the destruction of a culture, rape, torture, and instigating the big lie." During the six-day encounter, Indians held events to emphasize their heritages and counter the tributes to the explorer planned for the coming year. Expo '92 in Seville, Spain, for example, is billed as the largest World's Fair in history. The Indians are planning "an alternative Seville" at a yet-to-be-chosen site in Mexico. Last week's meeting was the second in a series of gatherings of indigenous and peasant groups that will conclude next year. The first meeting was held in Bogota, Colombia, in October 1989, with 71 delegates from 21 countries. The meetings are being sponsored by the Coordinating Body For the Indigenous Peoples' Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), an umbrella group based in Lima, Peru. "The principal idea is to seek a convergence, an understanding, and a solidarity based on respect for all people and all ideas," says Rosalina Tuyuc, a Mayan Indian. "For example, we want the church to respect the diversity of spiritual beliefs that exists among the Maya, the Incas, the Aymaras, as well as the Aztecs." Last week, the Indians worked together to draft a "political action plan" for the second half of the millennium. They dealt in small groups with issues such as women's rights, land tenure, and democracy. While Guatemala tends to play up its pre-Columbian heritage by spotlighting ancient Mayan cities to attract tourists, the state of the country's 4.5 million Indians is far from praiseworthy. Illiteracy among the indigenous populations, concentrated in the rural highlands, is three times that of the Ladino, or mixed-blood, people. Nearly twice as many Indians die in infancy; those who do survive are likely to die an average of 15 years earlier than Ladino counterparts. As elsewhere in Latin America, Ladinos have held sway in most significant economic and political activities for centuries in this Ohio-sized country, leaving most Indians to earn a few hundred dollars a year tilling the land. "What do the Indians have to celebrate?... The death of their ancestors?" asks Samuel Franco, a student of Guatemalan Indians and owner of Casa K'ojom, an indigenous music museum in Antigua. In Guatemala, where Indians make up a majority of the country's 9 million people, European diplomats have tried to tone down the hoopla surrounding next year's anniversary. "Many people think they'll be facing parades and brand new monuments next year," says Juan Pablo de Laiglesia, Spain's ambassador to Guatemala."But Spain doesn't envision next year as anything to celebrate. It is a commemoration and a way to intensify relations between countries." Spain's efforts include projects aimed at stressing that point. The government plans, for example, to restore a temple built during the Maya heyday between 300 AD and 600 AD, as well as restore colonial archives now unprotected in Guatemala City. By 1993, Mr. Laiglesia says, Spain will spend $14 billion on assistance and loans to Latin American countries to protect native and imported cultures. "The Indians are trying to blame Spain for their problems," he said. "The question we need to address is not what happened five centuries ago, but what can be done to help reinforce relations and help the poorest sectors of Central America today."