IN a Boston hotel function room, a large circle of native American distance runners gather to give thanks to their creator and pray for strength in the next day's cross-country championships."When going up that hill, imagine you have wings on," one youth told the group of more than 100 Indian runners, coaches, and supporters as he stroked an eagle feather and then passed it to the person beside him. "Throughout the Indian community, people are thinking about you for the deeds you've accomplished," said Sioux Indian Billy Mills, whose dramatic gold-medal win at the 1964 10,000-meter Olympics in Tokyo became a legend. "This can be a launching pad for you in your life and your running experience," he said. The 1991 Athletics Congress/USA National Cross Country Championships in Boston last weekend brought together runners and teams from high schools, colleges, and clubs all over the United States. It also drew 87 talented native American runners from 32 tribes located in nearly every corner of the country - some of whom had never been on an airplane or even off their reservations. They belong to Wings of America, a youth development athletic program of the Earth Circle Foundation based in Santa Fe, N.M. Founded in 1987, the foundation is made up of mostly native Americans who work with indigenous peoples to preserve their homelands and cultures and strengthen their communities and economies. Wings of America was established in 1988 to help reach native American youths - a segment of the US population considered most vulnerable to many of the social and economic hardships in the Indian community. The statistics for young native Americans are sobering: Alcohol-related deaths are four times the national average; the suicide rate is three times the national average; 75 percent of the nation's Indians live in poverty; and 14 percent drop out of school in the 9th grade, according to the Earth Circle Foundation. "We're using running as a catalyst to get Indian youths involved," says Wings founding director William Channing, a Briton who has worked with native Americans since 1972. "Running is part of their culture and way of life. It's a way of empowering these kids." Wings has grown from 16 runners representing one region in the 1988 USA National Cross Country Championships to 87 runners from five regions this year. Trials are held in each of the regions (Great Lakes, Southwest, Southern Plains, Northern Plains, and Northeast), and a volunteer staff of native American coaches oversees each team. Youths from age 14 to 19 compete in the men's and women's junior division; those over age 20 compete in the senior division. THE Wings program is "helping us to relate and meet other tribes," says 14-year-old Navajo Michelle Belone. Though just three years old, Wings boasts a number of athletic successes: The Southwest junior men's team took first place in 1988, 1989, and 1990; this year it finished second. The Southwest junior women's team took first, and the Northern Plains junior women came in third. And last year Maurice Smith, a Navajo from Arizona, was one of two milers chosen to run for the US in the Goodwill Games in S eattle. But Wings aims to go beyond stressing athletics. Its staff and coaches encourage Indian youths to stay in high school and strive to go to college. The staff works to arrange internships and interviews between students and schools. Phillip Castillo, an Acoma Indian from New Mexico who has run with Wings of the Southwest junior men's team for three years, says the support from coaches helped motivate him to start college. "The opportunity given to these young people is great - it makes them think," he says. "It gives them a chance to get off the reservation and compete out of state." Mr. Castillo, 19, took fourth place in this year's junior men's race. Wings receives most of its money from grants and donations. These funds have enabled the program to send a growing number of runners to compete in various races. Wings hopes to attract more corporate sponsors, such as Polo Ralph Lauren, which has supplied runners with sweats since 1988. Nike has donated running shoes for two years. One of Wings's goals is to generate funding for some of the runners to return to their reservations to talk about drug and alcohol abuse and serve as role models. Wings already has a grant to start The Wind Messenger, a newsletter for young native Americans. Director Channing says it will be written by Indians and keep kids involved and abreast of events in the Indian community. Wings also plans to send a number of runners to the world cross-country championships here in March. Ramona Roach, a petite Navajo Indian who coaches the Northern Plains women's team, says that just as the field of running has opened for the Kenyans, "I feel the doors are opening up for us - especially the women." "I have this vision," miler Maurice Smith told the Wings runners, "of native Americans becoming a dominant force in running."