A Lexicon of the Indigenous Body: Images of Autonomy and Desire

Natalie Diaz on the indigenous body in art.

A Lexicon of the Indigenous Body: Images of Autonomy and Desire

This essay appears in the recently published catalog Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A., a project of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library, and supported by major grants from the Getty Foundation as part of PST:LA/LA.


WE HAVE FEW GESTURES that can hold all of our impulses — desire, pain, pleasure, grief, play, violence, and tenderness — the way art can, simultaneously, and with limitless capacity. It is one of the most effective means of disrupting definitions and prescriptions of identity and goodness imposed on native peoples by the colonial empires of the Americas, both North and South. This disruption has sparked and maintained movements and revolutions for hundreds of years. Art is a mirror of the fractured world, a way of surveying the wound and assessing its scarring — it is also a mirror in which people recognize themselves, a tool to shatter the lens of invisibility a brown body has been asked to live under. To recognize an image or likeness of yourself in a poem or mural, to have your presence acknowledged, even celebrated, can awaken a pride and purpose large enough and contagious enough to supplant the gauntlet of shame forced upon tribal peoples by the systematic oppression of nationhood. Though Western academies have often tried to diminish our art by labeling it folk art or primitive art, street art or outsider art, political or incendiary art, no matter what they call it, they have not been able to deny its charge and beauty. The mural “For the Pride of your Hometown, the Way of the Elders, and in Memory of the Forgotten” by the Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos, frees the indigenous body from the margins of Los Angeles history, from subservience to the conquistador, and places it back in the center, unapologetically, shamelessly, and with confidence, a long over due acknowledgment that we were always at the center. Tlakolulokos’s images anchor the city to its roots — the indigenous body was the first body, was the beginning, and the city cannot be separated from its indigenous peoples and the ways they thrive.

Our art is dangerous because it is where we as native peoples are the most possible — not as subjects to be categorized or gazed upon but as makers and creators of what has not yet been. Indigenous art is born of ceremony — it is a set of practices and processes fueled by dreams, intuition, and imagination. To create is a radical act. It is radical to let yourself build something new and unknown, motivated not by law or order or rule — to be moved not in submission to a master but as the master, as the dreamer, as someone ignited with a holy, sacred energy. Our imagination is prisoner to no one and obeys no borders. To create is also an act of love. Love, like art, is not subject to control or governance — they are two of the purest forms of potential.

In art, we are happening — we are now — urgent and pulsed with desires, an essential, undeniable factor of American arts and letters, as opposed to an occurrence of the past. The contemporary practices we use are not in contrast to our traditional knowledge but are in balance with it, a synthesis of traditional technology and modern technology. The hard-fought struggles of our activist forebears ensured that we can choose all the things we are. We have always been indigenous, and since the nation-states of the Americas drew their borders across our lands, we are American too. By necessity, our work critiques subjugation at the same time that it exercises freedom, expressing the myriad ways we succeed and are beautiful, individually and tribally, as American and as more than American.

One of the ways we inhabit a space of multiplicity is through our languages. Language is a physical energy, a force gifted by the creators so that we might pray to our gods, cry out for our dead, and beckon our beloveds home. Natives were once 100 percent of the population of North and South America — the first to dance on this land, to holler out across it and hear it echo back, to draw and carve into it, to leave a mark. Indigenous lexicons are the foundation of all American art. When I say lexicon I do not mean the static system of symbols elicited and studied by Western-educated linguists and ethnographers for centuries, detached from the native bodies whose mouths and hands it shaped. Instead, when I say lexicon, I mean language as physicality — a sensual body that cannot be separated from its speaker, a song that cannot be divided from its singer. By lexicon, I mean the tongue, the throat, the hands, the eyes, the wounds, the scars — I mean every desire of each.

Our lexicons are rich and complex, visual and verbal, as readable in image as they are in text. Even when our languages were oral they were still physical, rooted to and released from our bodies — every living being connected by the bright lasso of the tongue flung out in word, in song, in weeping, in story, in teasing, in every gesture of the hand. Our ancestors wrote first in image, drawing as text, while the land was still free and un-bordered, long before the Latin alphabet’s letters were pressed upon us. As our ancestors began to write, they didn’t rely on symbols of sounds or intimations of meaning. They wrote the actual body — a jaguar, a comet, a king, a death, a woman god, a child being born. They were alchemists of image, of story — mixing ash and bone, crushing pigments, binding them with spit or animal fat to make inks and paints. We younger generations have come to art along the path they left for us to follow: what we make with our bodies is not disconnected from our body and instead is a cycle of return. When we create, we invoke the body, our own and every body that came before us — against erasure, against massacre, against imprisonment, against illness, against forgetfulness. When we image these bodies in our work, we are imaging our homelands.

Part of this indigenous lexicon is a belief that body refers to both the land and the beings who live upon it. They hold the same value. This is reflected in the Mojave or Makav language — the word for body is ‘iimat and the word for land is ‘amat. In conversation, each can be represented by the prefix mat-, meaning when one hears the word mat- used in conversation, one must know the context of the conversation in order to discern if the speakers are talking about the body of a person or the body of the land. One is injured as easily as the other. Both have memories. To take care of the earth is to take care of the self. Our languages, our images, and our stories arise from our bodies and from the dirts and waters we were formed from. America has respect for neither body — what it has done in violence to our brown bodies it has done in violence to our earth. Yet we cannot be erased anymore than the dirt we walk on can be erased — the earth can rupture, erupt in fire or green with life, break for lack of water, shake and tremble, feed you or drown you — but cannot be annihilated. We are the land, the land is us: Califa, Los Angeles, Malibu, ‘Avi Kwa’ame, Arizona, Miami, Manhattan. These places carry our names, our bodies.

Since the beginning of conquest, many of the privacies and intimacies of our cultures have been stolen, collected and displayed in museums and wealthy homes of aficionados, categorized by the non-indigenous expert as art, primitive or ethnic, an exotic commodity that manifests outside the centrality of Western culture. On the contrary, nobody can define our art for us. We are self-determined artists, and it isn’t until we the indigenous makers choose to call our work art that it becomes art. Art is our sovereignty, our autonomous act of hostility or celebration, of critique or joy, whether shared publicly or kept private. To have the autonomy to create is one type of freedom. Considering the thefts we have endured and continue to endure — of land, of rivers, of language, of ceremonial objects, of burial grounds, of independence — our commitment to and creation of art is one of the strongest resistances we can enact. Such are the murals of Tlakolulokos, which now grace the Central Library rotunda. These images are as revolutionary as they are celebratory. The men and women painted to life along the rotunda walls carry both their conquerors and their futures — in each iteration they leap from death into the wild possibilities of their lives, demanding to be seen, taking up space, making themselves visible through tradition and technology.

Indigenous art has been central to resistance movements across the war-struck timelines of the Americas. As a revolutionary action, it is often created outside the boundaries of surveillance, beyond regulation by the government and colonial state. In this respect, art is not far from sacred — it is a conversation with the innermost parts of our identities, and like most things that are sacred, this interiority resists translation and observation. In the earliest stages of the creative process, artists are the most emotional, most moved, most fully the multitudinous identity necessary to live as an indigenous person in the Americas today. Build a wall to keep us out and we will paint our narrative across its bricks. We will carve our names high up along a freeway overpass at night with a can of spray paint, pose and take “selfies” with cell phone cameras, pen a poem on squares of toilet paper in prison then smuggle it out in a shoe, sit bent-kneed on the dirt floor of a home weaving wool shorn, spun, and loomed from animals fattened on the shrubs of our own land, or ink the otherwise obscured history of our people across our shoulders and backs. When these creative gestures are kept private, when we choose to offer them only to our families and communities, they defy categorization and resist the gaze of Western art, existing first and foremost as personal stories about what we love, what we fear, what we remember, what we war against, what we have urgency to tell those who will come after us in our families, lineages, and legacies.

In his preface to Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “I had to claim my birthright. I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.” Likewise, native and indigenous art is more than a reaction to a country’s crimes, historical and current — it does not seek to alleviate or solve the tensions of colonial and occupied America. There is work engaged with these experiences and the subsequent discourses and arguments with Americanism. However, indigenous creativity is not solely a reckoning with or even a reconciling of colonial violence — the acts of empire are not reconcilable, not by art or apology or an entire nation’s cultural amnesia. Indigenous artists have studied and mastered the tension of their nations and leap from it into spaces of wonder and innovation. The survivors of oppression are often the most innovative, and though many of these innovations were originally means of survival forged in the crucibles of massacres and beneath the pressures of systematic erasures designed to help steal and abuse our lands and waters, they have now evolved as part of our mastery and craft, our knowledge system, our personal schools of art. In her book, Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings, poet Joy Harjo wrote, “For any spark to make a song it must be transformed by pressure. There must be unspeakable need, muscle of belief, and wild, unknowable elements. I am singing a song that can only be born after losing a country.”

As much as this country has attempted to consume us and assimilate all that is native, somewhere in the fields of heat and carnations, in the shadows of glass-sparkled alleyways, over the blurred air of cooktops, across blacktop basketball courts, on the trembling rooftops of trains, in paint and in ink, in sweat and in blood, we became this country — it isn’t itself without us. Still, we are so many selves — we are our ancestors, and we are the future. America did not crush us when it devoured us, but became us, as we became it. We are in its belly — indigenous art nourishes the nation and threatens to split it open from the inside out. North America and South America, each an ouroboros, tried to eat us alive but made us more.

Our lexicons are the living archives of what has been done to us and to our natural world, as well as the prophecies for what we have yet to do. The Tlakolulokos mural is not static or frozen in time — “For the Pride of your Hometown, the Way of the Elders, and in Memory of the Forgotten” is an image on the move, in the act of crossing, a bridge connecting two homes situated in one land, a disruption and refusal of a border, a place where a body can cross from violence into love or from love into violence, and where those bodies are forever traversing both history and futurity. Whether image-based or text-based, indigenous lexicons threaten American empire because they carry our indigenous bodies, the bodies of our ancestors, the bodies of our beloveds, and the body of our homeland. For this reason, our codices were burned in the squares, our glyphs and stelae were chipped away at and effaced, and our grandmothers and grandfathers were whipped or worse for speaking their language in boarding schools. Today our children are fed texts and images on television, in their schoolbooks, in the art and statuary of our very own cities that suggest to them a reality in which their brown bodies can only exist if they are damaged or erased. In Decolonizing the Mind, Kenyan postcolonial theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s argument for linguistic decolonization, and his farewell to writing in the English language, he outlined the methods by which colonialism imposed its control over a people. Ngũgĩ wrote “the most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.” Whom, then, should we trust to teach our next generations that we are an ecstatic body as much as we are a wounded body? The great colonial secret, which governments wage wars to prevent us from remembering: the brown and indigenous body is not only capable of offering love, it is deserving of love. When we choose to tell the stories of our peoples, our lands and waters, we must use our own lexicons — images and texts that remember our histories and recall our homelands while also making our presence imaginable and our joy possible. With stone and blood and ink and paint, in image and in text, we will hold the indigenous body toward the light, in its imperfections, in its potential, and offer it the autonomy of desire.


Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Diaz teaches at Arizona State University, and her first poetry collection is When My Brother Was an Aztec.


Featured Image: Tlacolulokos, The Size of your Suffering, 2017. From the series “For the Pride of your Hometown, the Way of the Elders, and in Memory of the Forgotten.” Photo: Fausto Nahúm.

Banner Image: Tlacolulokos, “For the Pride of your Hometown, the Way of the Elders, and in Memory of the Forgotten.” Photo: Jeff McClane.

LARB Contributor

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Diaz teaches at Arizona State University, and her first poetry collection is When My Brother Was an Aztec. [Photo by Cybele Knowles.]


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