After a rash of headline-grabbing but soon forgotten appeals to the nation’s conscience, like the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969-1970 and the Wounded Knee uprising in 1973, the leaders of America’s impoverished and neglected Indian tribes have turned to a less spectacular but more productive way of improving their meagre lot: smart lawyers. Landowners and local governments throughout the United States find themselves outflanked by Indian lawyers demanding that ancient wrongs be righted and brandishing a potent arsenal of federal court precedents. Indian claims for land and water rights, which seemed grandiose and quixotic when first asserted a few years ago, now after a series of preliminary Indian court victories pose real threats to the owners of huge tracts of land. An Indian land claim hanging over the state of Maine is of such immense proportions that perhaps only the balm of millions of federal dollarsómaybe hundreds of millionsócan prevent severe economic dislocation. President Carter last month appointed William B. Gunter, a longtime friend who recently retired from the Georgia Supreme Court, as his special representative in an attempt to avoid litigation by an out-of-court settement or congressional legislation to resolve the dispute.