Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilORDA230Poet Warriors: Graphic and Lingui...

Poet Warriors: Graphic and Linguistic Rebellion in Contemporary Native Writing

Guerriers poètes : Rébellion graphique et linguistique dans l'écriture contemporaine des Amérindiens
Guerreros poetas: rebelión gráfica y linguística en la escritura contemporánea amerindia
Audrey Goodman


L’autrice défend ici l’idée que les poètes amérindiens contemporains mettent en scène la rébellion dans leurs poèmes en résistant à l’autorité de la langue anglaise, des documents juridiques et des espaces institutionnels. L’étude est basée sur les écrits des écrivains contemporains Esther Belin (Diné), Layli Long Soldier (Lakota), Nathalie Diaz (Mojave) et Joy Harjo (Muscogee Creek) et explore également les publications collectives d’artistes autochtones, notamment les anthologies The Diné Reader et When the Light of the World was Subdued. L’article démontre comment la rébellion de ces écrivaines se déploie sur les plans linguistiques et symboliques : leurs poèmes usent du pouvoir des langues indigènes, les voix poétiques défient l’autorité des documents et des institutions gouvernementaux, et les formes retenues rendent compte des relations étroites que les Amérindiens entretiennent avec leurs terres, leurs langues et leurs communautés.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

I/ Introduction

  • 1 Since then, tributes to Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra, a missionary who effectively enslaved Nati (...)
  • 2 For details about the CHART project, see

1Public rebellion against official histories of conquest of the lands of the U.S. West has taken many forms, including the defacement of state archives and the destruction and removal of monuments that once celebrated conquistadors, missionaries, and soldiers. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day in October 2020, an activist group toppled the Soldiers’ Monument on the Santa Fe Plaza, an obelisk erected in 1867-68 to commemorate Union veterans who died in New Mexico territory during the Civil War (the word “savage,” referring to the Indigenous people these soldiers fought and killed, had already been chiseled out from the stone monument in 1974). Earlier that year, other protesters extended public acts of rebellion against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis by scribbling red graffiti on the wall of the New Mexico History Museum: “1680 Land Back.” This message both affirmed a history of coordinated armed resistance among Indigenous people in the Americas and drew strength from that history to renew a collective commitment to reclaim Native lands. Referring to the successful Pueblo Revolt of 1680, organized by Tewa-speaking Ohkay Owingeh leader Popé to fight against brutal oppression by the Spanish, the message served as a call to continue the fight and, in the words of San Ildefonso archeologist Joseph Aguilar, to “maintain sovereignty, language, culture.”1 In response to such protests, the city of Santa Fe has established a Culture, History, Art, Reconciliation and Truth commission (CHART) to engage diverse citizens and promote dialogue. The goal of the process “is to foster mutual understanding of shared values among individuals and groups with diverse backgrounds, not simply to decide about monuments and statues.” Looking ahead, the group will propose long-term plans “to promote truth, healing, and reconciliation for a future of peace and justice.”2

2The 23rd U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo has enacted the challenge of fighting against the colonizer’s monuments and texts for decades through her writing, her music, her editorial work, and her public speaking and advocacy. She learned from poet Audre Lorde, one of her many teachers, that, as she explains in her memoir Poet Warrior,

there is no separation between being a poet and being a mother and lover. All are warrior roles. Audre Lorde’s wisdom songs folded into the consciousness of my poetry. They tell me to this day that there is no end to the quest for justice, for knowledge, and remind me to make poems to hold everything that slips past the failure of memory, of love” (178).

3Harjo claims “poetry is a tool of transformation. . .” (108) and views poets as capable of reinventing language, including English, “the enemy’s language.” She sets a model for how contemporary women poets can continue to be “poet warriors” and fight battles in intimate and public spaces through writing, performing, and publishing. In “Exile of Memory,” the poem Harjo published originally in An American Sunrise and chose to situate at the center of the Living Nations, Living Words interactive digital map and companion book, her signature project as Poet Laureate, her speaker fights against official U.S. efforts not only to remove Native people from their homelands but also to efface their memories. The poem addresses how the affects of exile reverberate into the present and stages physical and imaginative returns to the poet’s native Muscogee lands. The first stanza confronts the warning that excavating memories of those ancestors who died could be a perilous process. If the spirits of the dead re-emerge, they will neither recognize nor find a place in the world they see. They might be angry. The speaker imagines being taunted by someone with more wisdom: “And then what, you with your words / in the enemy’s language, / Do you know how to make a peaceful road through human memory?” (72) Nonetheless, she takes the risk, chooses to return, and discovers that “those who continued to keep the land. . . welcomed us” (73). Although still in mourning, still wracked by grief, still seething with anger, the speaker’s people can still find their way back with the right words. In the imaginary journey narrated in this poem, the poet traverses scales of time and affirms living relations with the spirits of her ancestors, the animals, and the winds. As the poem progresses, it proclaims the speaker’s full presence and the power of her voice. She declares,

We cannot see our ancestors as we climb up
The ridge of destruction
But from the dark we sense their soft presence at the edge of our minds
And we hear their singing.

There is no word in this trade language,
No words with enough power to hold all this we have become–

We are in time. There is no time, in time. (76)

  • 3 The last section of Living Words, titled “Departure, or West,” includes poems engaged with “constru (...)

4Even if a single English word or phrase cannot suffice “to hold all this we have become,” a song that a poet and their audience might begin now could carry the power of Indigenous presence into the future. The poem ends with the speaker singing her “leaving song” to the surrounding trees, earth, and spirits and resolving to continue as long as she lives. “I will sing it until the day I die,” (77) she vows.3

5In Why Indigenous Literatures Matter, Donald Heath Justice explains the value of kinship in sustaining Indigenous identities and senses of belonging. Kinship “is about what happens when bodies and imaginations come together in relationship, when boundaries are breached and something else coming into being, for good or illor, sometimes, for both. Kinship is the complex, embodied practice of sovereign belonging” (104). Harjo’s work as poet, poet laureate, and editor exemplifies how writing and publishing can express and advance the value of kinship as Justice articulates it here.

6Other Native artists have also been performing comparable acts of rebellion against centuries of conquest through making visible the histories of violence carried out in the name of the U.S. government on public monuments, on painted canvasses, and on the pages of their published poems; through their art, they both rebel and engage in efforts to promote truth and healing. These artists take political and formal cues from public strategies of occupation and protest, as well as from Indigenous and Euro-American storytellers, artists, and orators. In his study Engaged Resistance, Dean Rader terms the critical re-arrangements of form and genre Native artists initiated during the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and the occupation of Alcatraz “compositional resistance.” While many of these works may also indicate defiance through their content or message, the art Rader analyzes engage formal strategies of what he calls “aesthetic activism.” He considers “how the text is composed: the materials the artist uses, the organization or plot structure of a film or novel, or the inversions of Western poetic genres” (5).

7Among visual artists, Salish and Kootenai painter Jaune Quick-to-See Smith exemplifies compositional resistance. As Rader explains, Smith “employs paint, collage, artifacts, newspapers, and photographs to create a combination of representational and abstract images that illustrate the extent to which contemporary Native life is fundamentally interwoven with the destruction of the environment, governmental oppression, and the pervasive myths of American cultural identity” (51). Her work draws from fields ranging from journalism, popular culture, and sculpture to cartography. For example, her map paintings, such as Tribal Map (1992) and Memory Map (2000), superimpose and layer words, slogans, symbols, and portraits on spaces where place names typically belong and blurs boundaries with drips of paint to claim imaginative occupancy of North America.4 Deploying Indigenous words and modes of graphic notation such as petroglyphs and blending objective and subjective visions of place, Smith’s maps suggest many routes towards reading the land and excavating memories of places and the people who inhabited them. “With these multiple invocations to remember,” Susan Bernardin explains in a chapter on Indigenous memories in A History of Western American Literature, “Smith also recognizes the continuing communicative power of Indigenous languages and expressive forms that mark specific ongoing relationships to land, relationships that map political, spiritual, storied geographies” (15-16). Contemporary Indigenous writers, too, rebel against the limits of genre and enclosures of traditional Anglo-European literary forms by creating multilingual texts that use the pages of books as sites of resistance. As Rader claims, Native poets draw inspiration from many domains and disparate sources, problematize genre by working between lyric and epic modes, and deploy words as weapons (129-30). They resist Anglo-European literary structures of classification, and they foreground Indigenous epistemologies.

8This essay explores how three Native poets enact rebellion, or defiance of authority and convention, through creating poetic voices that foreground their living relationships to land and language, through challenging generic classifications of poetry, and through collaborative publications that remap the literary landscapes of the U.S. I focus on the work of Layli Long Soldier (Lakota), Esther Belin (Diné), and Natalie Diaz (Mojave), considering how their acts of rebellion as “poet warriors” take various forms. In the collections Whereas (Long Soldier, 2017), Of Cartography (Belin, 2017), and Postcolonial Love Poem (Diaz, 2020), as well as in recent anthologies, these poets pay close attention to how their languages and their bodies provide resources for voicing knowledge and negotiating the histories of the tribal and settler spaces they occupy. Their multilingual speakers defy the authority of monolingual government documents and institutions, and their graphic arrangements of words make space for new strategies of articulating knowledge, thus effectively demolishing the walls and monuments that celebrate colonial conquest at the expense of Native histories. They rebel against the occupations of their lands and languages through both anti-monumental poetic gestures and rebellious composite forms on the page.

9Throughout the essay, I also note how individual poems resonate and gather power through publication in anthologies created and edited by Native writers. The anthologies Living Nations, Living Words edited by Harjo (2022); The Diné Reader edited by Belin, Jeff Berglund, Connie Jacobs, and Anthony Webster (2022); the Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (2020), edited by Harjo, LeAnne Howe, and Jennifer Elise Foerster; and New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid Erdrich (2018) all proclaim the rich histories of Indigenous writing. For each of the editors and many of the writers, the notion of land remains a keyword; “maintaining relationships to land is at the heart of indigenous peoples’ struggles” (Goeman 2015, 71). At the same time, they locate those histories in various ways, whether within the cosmologies and lived histories of a tribal nation (as in the case of The Diné Reader), as part of a directorial orientation (in the cases of Living Words and When the Light Was Subdued), or as a manifestation of contemporary creative energy (New Poets of Native Nations). While individual works often engage both graphic and verbal modes of communication to revise and rebel against languages of conquest and English poetic forms and genres, the anthologies as a whole demonstrate how rebellion can be fomented at the interface of composition and reception, through the process of promoting new reading practices. Read together and in conversation with the volumes published by individual poets, these collective publications further contest the literary monuments of the U.S. West and remap the region’s literary landscape.

II/ Rebellious Resolutions

10In the collection Whereas, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry in 2017, Layli Long Soldier declares her multiple affiliations: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” she asserts, “meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation–and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” As a citizen of both nations, she “must live” in all the warring ways that such a dual existence requires. In her poems, she shows that living with forgiveness means speaking of absences, writing about pain, and inhabiting spaces of contradiction. She lives and writes in those spaces where past, present, and future overlap. In an interview with Krista Tippett, she explained that she wants to write from the present, to consider the experiences of her lifetime, not a distant past, because she wants to explore the language that articulates “the now.”

11For Long Soldier, the present moment also encompasses the struggle of living with the knowledge of failed treaties, treaties that displaced her people from their traditional hunting grounds and caused widespread hunger and hardship. In her review of the book for The New York Times, Natalie Diaz explains,

“Whereas” is an excavation, reorganization and documentation of a structure of language that has talked the United States through its many acts of violence. This book troubles our consideration of the language we use to carry our personal and national narratives. (“A Native American Poet Excavates”)

12Whereas rebels specifically against the official Congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans that President Obama signed in 2009, arguing that the apology itself is invalid because it was never presented directly and because it carries no legal weight. As she and others have noted, “this resolution received little, if any, attention. There were no tribal people present to receive the apology, and it was not proclaimed or read aloud by President Obama before Congress; the text of the resolution included a disclaimer which asserted that nothing in the apology supports or settles any claim against the United States” (Midge). Long Soldier writes in the “Introduction” that the book “is directed to the apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting and arrangement of the written document” (57). Her response challenges the capacity of a single language to commemorate and express Lakota history. It writes back to the official languages of English and legal treaties and troubles the boundaries that would delineate a singular tribal and linguistic identity; in the process, it creates its own living, multilingual resolutions.

13Part I, “These Being the Concerns,” lays out complex practices of looking at the land, the self, and the world. It follows sensation across the boundaries of history and language. Beginning with the invocation,

make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses (5)

the book simultaneously “excavates the language of occupation,” as Diaz succinctly describes it in her book review, and asks the reader to listen and speak differently in occupied spaces. The speaker specifies the natural and symbolic elements of the land, its grasses, and explores the sounds of words as they repeat, run together, and echo. In this invocation, “grass is poem, memory, history, and material being,” Amy Hamilton explains. Long Soldier’s call to “make room in the mouth” asks readers to create imaginative spaces in the mind; “it is also a call to remember the history of the Lakota people on the grassy plains” (390). As she pays tribute to the grasses and their meanings, Long Soldier brings into relation many poetic legacies, notably Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and transmutes the grasses’ status from dead language to living testimonial.

14“Steady Summer,” a poem placed in the middle of Part I, further immerses the reader in the sounds of “solstice grasses” and “grass songs” that together constitute a “grass chorus.” The speaker must listen carefully to hear the music, and she allows it to cross the boundaries of house and body:

a grass chorus moves shhhhh
through half-propped
windows I swallow
grass scent the solstice
makes a mind
wide (31)

15The restless mingling of sound and speech, natural and human voices, scent and body expand the imagination, “make a mind / wide.” In this poem, such openings allow the speaker to occupy vast spaces and hear voices from afar, including that of her daughter from two states away. Hamilton observes of this poem, “As the poet struggles with the limits, contradictions, and violence of language and language loss, grass offers another kind of expression” (390).

16In other poems, the speaker thinks through the lessons and languages she will pass on to future generations. In “Edge,” she contemplates her daughter humming in the back seat as she drives past grasses dried and gold at the end of winter. “I do not know what to say how far to go the winter near dead,” she confesses. Although she knows her young daughter does not understand words as she does, she recognizes the truth of her daughter’s feeling: “you do not understand word for word the word for you is little. But you hear how it feels always.” This poem alludes to the period of severe starvation that led to the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, but the speaker wills herself to look away from the historical memory. At the end of this poem, the speaker chooses to honor their present feelings rather than call attention to the landscape and the history of those hills once prized for their gold. The last sentence, which runs across two lines, intertwines the present moment of observation by both mother and daughter with the remembered presence of people forced to eat the grasses to alleviate their hunger: “And I see it Mommy the edge but do not point do not say look as we pass the heads gold and blowing these dry grasses eaten in fear by man and horses” (48).

17Only at the end of Part I of Whereas does Long Soldier delineate the specific historical significance of these grasses. The poem entitled “38” reveals that when the Dakota people were starving because the U.S. government had “purchased” the land that had sustained them and reduced their territory by 1851 to a strip of land measuring twelve by one-hundred-and-fifty miles, local trader Andrew Myrick denied them credit, “saying ‘If they are hungry, let them eat grass.’” The poem tells the facts of the Sioux Uprising: U.S. soldiers imprisoned one thousand people and hung thirty-eight Dakota men. Although Long Soldier’s speaker acknowledges the difficulty of unraveling the tangle of broken and “defunct” treaties, calling them “a muddy, switchback trail to follow” (50), she writes the poem exposing this single brutal event as a lucid sequence of full and measured sentences, each with an end stop. Her stated purpose is to create a new kind of memorial:

Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.
Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues, or gravestones.
The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words,
          but an act.
Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing
          about grasses. (52)

18The speaker eventually reveals,

When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising,
          one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.

When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.” (53)

19Then she states, “I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.” She continues,

There’s irony in their poem.
There was no text.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue, a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the words “let them eat grass” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work. (53)

20Through language and word choice, in “38” Long Soldier rebels against the absence of living memorials with both a precise historical narrative and expansive, loving attention to the languages of the land. In her review, Diaz calls “38” “the aching poem at the heart” of the volume. At the end, the speaker utters her own determination to live, observe, and survive into the future. She mingles the identities of the body that swings “Out / to the grasses” with her own: the body is both that of one of the hanged men swinging on the platform and that of the speaker herself. She releases both into the free space and living leaves of grass.

Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.

And let the body                 swing.

From the platform.

                                                                             to the grasses. (53)

21As the last lines fragment cautious and grammatically correct sentences into split and spacious forms on the page, the poem expresses the anguish of the speaker’s embodied identification with her relatives who suffered and died.

22Other poems in Whereas similarly deploy the power of graphic arrangement to document unacknowledged land seizures and enact alternate ways of reading both official documents and the poems on the page. They seize selective words from official documents and omit others, rearranging them to imagine multiple ways of reading that could model new resolutions. In Part II, the poem “Resolution (2)” includes the words “this land” in every line, but each time the words are printed they occupy a different place in the line. For example,


commend          this land

and                               this                                                     land

honor                                    this                 land           (90)

23Long Soldier stretches the lines by building space into them, spaces that mark both the absences of the false claims to territory that might be found in an official document and the presence of the air and other unnamed beings that the land sustains. When Long Solder reads the poem aloud (as she does on the Living Nations, Living Words web site), she reads the poem in the traditional manner, line by line, but indicates the spaces with pauses and silences.5 Her reading has the effect of building towards the next-to-last, densest line, which repeats “this land” five times before breaking off:

protected    this land    his land    this land    this land    this land    this

24The end of the poem, however, ruptures the pattern. It repeats the word “this” at the end of the penultimate line and leaves the final “this” dangling in space. Or, does the end of the poem open space for a new word? If not this land, then what? Lost in the first reading but visible on the page is the vertical line that consists of the first word of each line and reads “I commend and honor Native Peoples for the thousands of years that they have stewarded and protected” (90). Read vertically along the left margin, the poem the poem reiterates the official claim to stewardship–while reserving the object of that stewardship, the land, for the poet’s own use. In effect, Long Soldier uses the left margin to anchor her own rebellious resolution.

25Such powerful deployment of rebellious form is also evident in Long Soldier’s poem “Obligations 2,” printed in New Poets of Native Nations.6 An example of concrete poetry, the poem is arranged as an imperfect diamond with flat bottom. With its symmetrical geometry and even spacing, the poem offers many spaces for the reader to enter, pause, move, remember, memorialize. Note the words that are repeated: “we” and “the grief, the grief, the grief.” Although there are many ways to read the poem, there is no way to get around this word and no evading the cumulative effect of its repetition. Through repetition, the poem suggests that one unavoidable obligation of the present is to recognize and write undocumented grief. Another is to speak of how the present and the future can encompass that grief. There is a rhythmic insistence to the declarations when read line by line that is itself rebellious. It won’t let the listener forget or move on, but it also doesn’t rest and dwell on a single event. When reading each horizonal line, one needs to jump across the empty gaps and still hold together the oppositions and tensions. Because of its graphic arrangement, the poem requires the reader to participate in the unfinished work of understanding and memorializing. When reading in a zig zag pattern, one discovers other paths through grief, other destinations. Only when moving around the circumference of the diamond does a simpler, sustainable opposition emerge. Going clockwise, one phrase reads, “As we resist the past we fail to question the grief we bury as ash across our faces.” Going counter-clockwise, the phrase reads, “As we embrace the future we work to understand the grief we shift into light across our faces.” Both begin with a collective process, “As we”; both end with the image of something moving “across our faces,” whether ash or light.

26However one reads the poem, the effort is complex. Through its form, “Obligations 2” resists letting go of the past and the grief held by those who remember it (as word and in the form of ash), but the poem also moves forwards, toward light. It articulates a way of being in the present that encompasses the entirety of what has gone before in order to move ahead. To enact the work of this poem and fulfill the obligations it specifies, readers need to return to the process and adapt over time with each version. By creating a form that is simultaneously a vehicle of resistance and a declaration of ongoing obligations to remember, Long Soldier creates both new practices of reading printed words and a flexible language for commemoration and reinvention. As Heid Erdrich writes in her introduction to the New Poets anthology, poets like Long Soldier create space and speak of “a new time–an era of witness, of coming into voice, an era of change and of political and cultural resurgence” (xi). “Obligations 2” contributes to the book’s aim to create “a place, somewhere we could go.” As with many of Long Soldier’s poems, it expands the notion of what a poem can be to encompass un-memorialized events and to activate symbolic transformation.

III/ Rebellious Cartographies

  • 7 In a 2000 interview for SAIL, Belin stressed the connection between writing and the oral tradition. (...)

27Diné poet Esther Belin, too, rebels through language and poetic form; for her, writing is activism, activism is writing.7 Such activism is evident in one of her early “poems,” “Check One.”

Check One

  • 8 Goeman’s study of Native women mapping their nations, Mark My Words, offers a thorough account of t (...)

28Is this even a poem? Or is it an imitation of governmental form? “It reinvents on two distinct but omnipresent planes,” according to Rader: “governmental form and poetic forms –both of which have long histories of generic expectations” (127). It’s a “text about classification that resists easy classification” (128). Rader opens his chapter on “Compositional Resistance” with this example because it demonstrates how Native poets subvert forms to declare imaginative sovereignty. Belin’s perspective and her writing have been shaped by her experience of growing up and living in Los Angeles and moving back and forth between urban and reservation environments; in the patterns of her life, too, she resists easy categorization.8

29In the collection Of Cartography (2017), Belin centers her attention on the practice and discourse of mapping, structuring the volume according to the four directions that orient Diné culture and emphasizing the circular and cyclical structures of Diné thought. As environmental and political threats to the lands encompassed by reservation boundaries increase, Belin locates her grounded perspective more firmly in her homelands. Addressing readers of the special issue of Poetry Magazine that she guest edited (released in June 2022), she states,

I write this introduction from a mountain desert region in the American Southwest. It is a place scarred from political borders, from surface mining, from oil and natural gas drilling and fracking, from Indian wars and slavery, from rhetoric spewing privileged daggers of word arrows. This area in southwest Colorado is the northernmost area of Dinétah, homeland of the Navajo people. Although it is not recognized by the federal government as Navajoland, the landmarks within our stories–including our two boundary mountains in the north and east–designate our presence and connection to the land. (“Dear Reader”)

30In On Cartography, Belin’s speaker develops a dynamic connection to the land by oscillating between the mountains of Dinétah and her home in Los Angeles. To navigate multiple spaces simultaneously, she develops circular forms and presents a (non-linear) series of assignments. The opening page consists of one centered phrase, “bundles are bundling,” with a circular arrangement of four printed versions of the Diné word for circle (“názbas”) printed beneath. Approached as a field of action, this page introduces both the thematic concern of the volume (the active and continuous relationships between people, places, and ideas) and potential strategies for reading her poems (both horizontally and cyclically). As Belin explains in an interview with Jeff Berglund, the poetic forms in this book constitute acts of resistance to the linear written traditions taught to Native students in Indian boarding schools. “Tribal language is not compartmentalized,” she insists; “it’s about how you’re connected to all these things. Tribal people have a history of trauma from learning that communication form, of reformulating to fit the structure.” Because of her English education, she says, she started Of Cartography by asking questions about form instead of content. She sought to reflect the fluidity of tribal language, in which there’s no single linear way to tell a story. She confirms in the introductory interview included in The Diné Reader, “I do like to use the field of the page as a nonverbal device. I don’t really ‘see’ the form beforehand, the form is unique to each poem” (164).

31Such fluidity and potential for transformation are evident from the beginning of Belin’s volume. The very first stanza proclaims the tongue’s power and the body’s mutability:

my tongue is a fire
today I am the water
yesterday I was the wood (4)

32Then the second stanza declares (and centers) the speaker’s surrender to the forces that promise to transform and restore her:

33With this willing and eager surrender, the speaker prepares herself to witness any truths that might emerge, iridescent, in the night sky. She discovers and numbers the materials she will need to build her new structure: dawn, evening light, dark cloud, male rain, dark mist, female rain, pollen, grasshoppers. She receives instructions to add “the interior ingredients,” which include “cool” and “abundant” feelings (8). Then, when she approaches the “house made of mirage,” it is promised that she “will find the building permit and instructions.” Taken together, the imaginary structure and the tools needed to make her own space promise access to a “story wrapped inside the rainbow” (8).

34As this opening poem suggests, Belin’s writing of decolonial and transformative spaces integrates cultural, physical, and affective elements. It often does so in the form of lessons followed by assignments, indicating that resistance to colonial ways of thinking needs to be taught and practiced. For example, “lesson 38” specifies the time and location when her children’s “Navajo Education” begins: while driving in car, restless children in the back seat, acutely aware of her separation from Diné lands and language. The kids are “tired of telling jokes / tired of playing ‘I Spy,’ / tired of tribal radio” -- and, perhaps, ready for the “assignment 38” she gives them (and the reader):

1. diagram the separation
2. write a poem about the language not spoken
3. rearrange the lines in symbolic order (11)

35On the next page, she offers a directional diagram to chart their progress, followed by “assignment 39,” which builds from the instructions of “assignment 38.” Now, instead of being asked to “diagram the separation,” first the student should “analyze” it; then, as before, the student is instructed to “write a poem about the language not spoken”: third, rearrange not just the lines but the diagram itself “in symbolic order” (12). In this sequence of lessons, the formal representation of fractured relationships precedes and allows for the analysis of this condition of separation, while the organization of poetic lines into a symbolic arrangement allows for a higher order of rearrangement at the level of the diagram. What remains constant, and constantly transformative, is the writing of poetry that evokes languages not yet uttered.

36Of Cartography proceeds through explorations of the places, languages, and stories encountered in each direction, suggesting formulas for calculating routes into the past and future. It asks readers to share the rebellious work of navigating this land across multiple temporalities and to make their own maps from those elements they can bundle, arrange, and carry forward. It concludes with a poem seemingly in the process of being edited and another assignment, number 44. In structuring her poem-in-progress as a lesson, Belin insists on making visible not only the writing and revising of poetic forms but also a decolonial grammar. She takes the reader back to school but reimagines the process of education as learning how to select, arrange, and use language wisely. Anyone who starts to read the poem, however, discovers that it’s not easy.

37With irregular spacing and crossed-out lines, it’s not clear what to read and where to observe silences. When the conjunction “and” is repeated, it first connects completed and opposing actions (“bound” and “unraveled”) into an ongoing cycle. Then it connects the action with the materials acted upon (wood) and with the atmosphere (skies). As the poem proceeds, it becomes evident that actions, materials, and atmospheres are simultaneously linked (by conjunctions) and separated (by white spaces in the line). The potential for connection, rearrangement, and separation coexists in any poetic utterance. Thus the poem foregrounds and enacts the difficult and ongoing work of bundling, or creating coherent symbolic meaning from severed parts, initiated at the start of the volume.

38The poem “Assignment 44” that follows also raises hard questions:

Analyze the above conversation. Read it aloud. Read it loudly. Weave a thread through it, Bind your bundles of sayings, be mindful of loose strands. Smooth down frayed edges. Smudge with fire or water. (74)

39How is the poem a conversation? Two readers could alternate lines to create dialogue. But who is speaking? Who is teaching? Who is learning? Is this a conversation between opposing processes, doing and undoing, binding and unraveling? Or between actions in the past and their undoing in the present? It seems that the poet demonstrates through the form that the process of composition itself becomes a conversation that originates in water and wood as element and materials that sustain life; in the sources of air and creativity (sky and sky woman); in the sources of heat and destruction (fire); and in the patterns of Diné language. To continue the conversation means speaking of separation and absence, redacting words that no longer serve, and making space for new words and relations. For Belin, language, symbols, and poetic forms all serve as elements from which a rebellious cartography can be made.

IV/ Rebellious Bodies

40Like Harjo, Long Soldier, and Belin, Diaz is a “poet warrior” who rebels against the official structures built to contain grief, people, and resources. In giving equal value to the land and the beings who live on it, Diaz’s poetry takes these structures apart to give her speakers space to express the complexity of their being. The collection Postcolonial Love Poem “is myriad, because I am myriad,” Diaz has explained in an interview published in World Literature Today. The book “is all the things I am in wonder, in desire, in rage and anger, in imagination, in memory,” and thus it expresses her unique identity. Through its practices of naming and invocations of story, it also extends the histories and rituals of her Indigenous and Latina ancestors. They were “alchemists of image, of story,” she writes in the essay “A Lexicon of the Indigenous Body.” “We younger generations have come to art along the path they left for us to follow,” she declares. “When we create, we invoke the body, our own and every body that came before usagainst erasure, against massacre, against imprisonment, against illness, against forgetfulness.”

41Her poems create active memorials and imagine energetic relationships to Indigenous lands on intimate and grand scales, as is evident in the title poem. “Postcolonial Love Poem” invokes and names the Indigenous knowledge that other may have forgotten in order to declare the speaker’s power both to record the battles and to heal from their deep wounds. An even more powerful weapon against forgetting and ongoing trauma is love. “So I wage love and worse,” the speaker proclaims; in lines that draw from the discourse of antiquated battles fought with cannons in the name of chivalry, Diaz launches her speaker into a campaign that traverses and rescues the desert night. She shifts the objective of the battle from conquest of land or preservation of virtue to the creation of beauty, figuring her speaker as a being who can polish the raw materials of the desert into a vibrantly colored gem. “I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel / turning–green mottled red–the jaspers of our desires” (1). Once energized by love and language, the land becomes the poet’s desert, a place of dazzling abundance, not a battleground. Instead of erecting a memorial to all the lives lost in this territory or in the name of its conquest, Diaz merges the bodies of speaker and ground. She transforms her speaker into a snake at the service of the land and her lover. “I am your culebra. / I am in the dirt for you,” she declares. She imagines her lover as having hips as light as quartz, as hard and dangerous as the horns rams as they climb out of the soft sand in a desert wash. She commands the wild plants (heliotrope, scorpion weed, and phacelia) to rise in insurrection. By the end of the poem, Diaz has written her own body and myriad desires into the battlefield. Instead of memorializing the past, the poem creates a lexicon for inhabiting colonized lands in the present. Harjo comments on her choice of this poem as a fitting conclusion to the volume to Living Nations, Living Words when she explains, “The lover and beloved in the poem are the earth, located by lyric in liminal eternity. Yet both are bound by a postcolonial map that would divide, even destroy, them” (xvii). In this poem and throughout her work, Diaz defies both the official U.S. efforts to remove Indigenous people from their native lands and the conceptual and linguistic categories that separate human and natural bodies.

42Rebellion in support of Standing Rock led Diaz to write the “The First Water is the Body” (printed online, then in her collection, then in the edited volume New Poets of Native Nations). Through language and form, Diaz’s poem exposes those aesthetic conventions and languages that might protect readers from the knowledge of a place’s histories of violence, dispossession, and environmental destruction. Unfolding through a sequence of sections with uneven stanzas, the poem’s form itself is fluid and transformative. The arrow glyphs that separate sections point first in one direction and then the other, suggesting the movement of thought and memory. The names it offers for meditation and the images it conjures blur the boundaries between human and natural worlds, land and water, body and place. Diaz’s speaker asserts that she and the river are one; she carries the river in her body. In her own language, the name for person means the river runs through the middle of the body: “‘Aha Makav is the true name of our people, given to us by our Creator who / loosed the river from the earth and built it into our living bodies” (46). Although the English phrase might be “a poor translation,” one not meant “to imply a visual relationship,” it conveys powerfully the conceptual alignment of land and body at the center of Mojave epistemology and this poem. Diaz’s speaker insists later, “This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things—they are more than close together or side by side. They are samebody being, energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.” Furthermore, this poem’s speaker offers a new approach to translation: she wants to carry meaning from one culture to another “not in words but in belief” (48). Actions and ideas also converge when spoken in ‘Aha Makav. The word for tears is linked to the word for rivers, translating roughly as “a great weeping” or “a river of grief” (47). Other intertwined concepts include disappearing river/disappearing people; skeleton/ghost; clean/strong; water/good. To overcome the binary oppositions between body and nature, original and translation, Diaz proposes diving into a “third place,” an unknown depth where no center holds. To arrive at such a place requires moving beyond even the deep, familiar scent of “black-root wet anchoring the river’s mud banks” (49). She writes, “We must go to the point of the lance entering the earth, and the river becoming the first body bursting from the earth’s clay body into my sudden body” (49). With each iteration of the word “body,” the form changes, the senses gather more knowledge, and the speaker’s imagination travels deeper into land and memory. At the end of this section, the speaker relinquishes her own body and identity into the larger forces that shape and transform her. With this more fluid identity, she can proceed to delve into the origins of water and the languages she and Mojave elders use to remember, honor, and sustain their desert lands.

43“The Water Museum,” another poem from Postcolonial Love Poem, takes a different compositional approach to explore these fundamental questions. Inspired by a short story written by Luis Alberto Urrea, “The Water Museum,” the poem imagines a monument or museum dedicated to water. In its opening rebellious claim, the speaker cedes authority to nonhuman sources of knowledge, claiming in the section titled 0., “I can’t tell you anything new about the river-- / you can’t tell a river to itself” (63). By the second section of the poem, it is clear that the poem catalogues the exhibits in this imaginary museum according to its own imaginative logic. While the sections of the poem are numbered, they are all mixed up. The second section in terms of sequence is number 17; then number 4 follows; then 5; then 99. Section 123 follows directly after 23. Next is 300. Then 10. Not only is the order scrambled; the majority of the 3000 sections are missing. Diaz explains in a note:

This poem is not in conversation with Luis’s book directly, but the book’s title makes a water museum a real space in my wonders. This poem is a small part of how the American Water Museum of my mind exists. (99)

44In the place of packaged lessons and scripted guidebooks, it offers access to the vastness and still uncatalogued riches of what Diaz calls the “Museum of my mind.”

45Indeed, the poem offer neither outline for the reader not guide for the visitor (section 4 reveals that the guidebook’s only entry states “There is no guide”). Rather than explain the significance of the exhibits, the poem alternately presents original documents without interpretation and invites the reader to enter into a process of listening, sensing, and imagining. One document, attributed to the BIA, or Bureau of Indian Affairs, is a section of redacted marginalia providing instruction on how to kill Indigenous people by stealing their water. Another is a photograph allegedly printed in a South American newspaper showing the water a U.S. company bought rights to control. Still another is described as “the last love letter writer to the last river” (69). These documents prove a history of misusing and stealing water. Read within the larger structure of the poem, they invite the reader to imagine hypothetical future without water –and without life.

46Is this poem a museum that imperfectly contains the knowledge of the past projected into the future or a museum designed to generate new options for restoration? It may be both. Section 874 alludes to plans for a “water restoration project,” gesturing towards other kinds of writing and mapping (including blueprints and sketches of buildings), but then undoes them, covering them with red graffiti and concluding that it is impossible to restore a river to itself. What the poem’s jumbled and incomplete sequence suggests is the failure of institutions and their pedagogical models to preserve and communicate valuable knowledge to those who need it to live. While some sections expose the absence of water and the impossibility of restorations, others invoke the presence of water with sensuous urgency, locating the potential for resistance and transformation in the body and in language. They invite the reader to listen for the ever-changing voice of water across time. At one point the speaker describes this voice as “a melody, almostof mud” and seeks new language for translating it, working to dissolve the boundary between speaker’s body and the water that created and sustains that body. Section 23, for example, invites the visitor to approach the river as “an interactive performance piece” in order to access the river moving inside the body.

It is a thick smell, a color. Touch it–not with your hands,
But with your entire sensual skin. Touch it with your flesh.
Drink from yourself until you are full. Realize the emptiness
made by your fullness.
 . . (65-6)

47As this section suggests, knowledge available within the body can also expose traumatic histories It can reveal unquenchable thirst. It can generate pain. To manage such feelings, the speaker explains, “There are grief counselors on site” (67). Once such feelings are released, the visitor might be ready to move forward and yield to the deeper knowledge that the land can offer. Even as this anti-monumental, anti-exhibitionist poem dismantles the premise of the museum, pushing again and again against the physical and conceptual limits of a museum as a place and institution that can contain the history of U.S. colonization, its rebellious architecture creates new spaces for paying tribute to the elemental foundations of land and life and for creating new relations between bodies, lands, and the cultures that sustain them. Finally, the water itself become the master text, one that holds the history of the world and its intricate relationships in its own fluid being: “It is a memoir of an indissolvable relationship with the word,” (72) the speaker declares.

V/ Conclusion

48In both form and content, poems by Diaz, Belin, and Long Soldier articulate the messy, painful, and generative practice of sovereign belonging. In Justice’s terms, the art they create to articulate such kinship “makes possible the living link between the past and the future within the bodies of the present” (105). To resist the colonial languages, names, and heroic figures imposed on them and on Indigenous lands, they listen to the places and elders who speak to them, allow their bodies to traverse space and time, excavate layers of history, and compose poetic forms that rebel against colonial pedagogies and integrate symbols, maps, diagrams, and languages. Committed to arranging words on the page in ways that create new imaginative spaces to occupy and new ways to read and maneuver through them, they counter official summations of their pasts and public accountings of their value with living memorials, maps, and prayers. They use poetry as “a tool for navigating transformation,” to quote Harjo, and imagine an open present that extends into the future. Taken together, these strategies transgress the boundaries between page and pronouncement, between bodies that create and bodies that witness, and between constructed monuments designed to be seen and embodied Indigenous knowledges that are uttered and heard. They constitute a poetics of living rebellion.

Haut de page


BELIN, Esther G. “Dear Reader” [Online]. Poetry June 2022. [Accessed June 6, 2022].

BELIN, Esther G. “Of Cartography. Tucson: U of Arizona Press. 2017.

BELIN, Esther G. Jeff BERGLUND, Connie A. JACOBS, and Anthoy K. WEBSTER (ed.), The Diné Reader. Tucson: U. of Arizona Press, 2022.

BERGLUND, Jeff. “‘Planting the Seeds of Revolution’: An Interview with Poet Esther Belin (Diné).” Studies in American Indian Literatures. 2005, vol. 17, n° 1., p. 62‑72.

BERNARDIN, Susan. “Indigenous Memories and Western American Literary History.” In Susan Kollin (ed.), A History of Western American Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 1‑12.

CHART Santa Fe [Online]. [Accessed July 6, 2022].

DIAZ, Natalie. “A Lexicon of the Indigenous Body: Images of Autonomy and Desire.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 8 December 2017. [Accessed 8 July 2022].

DIAZ, Natalie. “A Native American Poet Excavates the Language of Occupation.” [online]. [Accessed 4 July 2022].

DIAZ, Natalie. Postcolonial Love Poem. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2020.

GOEMAN, Mishuana. “Land as Life: Unsettling the Logics of Containment.” In Stephanie Nohelani Teves, Andrea Smith and Michele Raheja, eds. Native Studies Keywords. Tucson: U. of Arizona Press, 2015, p. 71‑89.

GOEMAN, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 2013.

HAMILTON, Amy. “Colonialism and Gendered Violence in the Grassy, Bloody West.” In Susan Bernardin (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Gender and the American West. London and New York: Routledge, 2022, p. 384‑93.

HARJO, Joy. Poet Warrior. New York: Norton, 2021.

HARJO, Joy (ed.). Living Nations, Living Words. New York: Norton, 2022.

HARJO, Joy, LeeAnne HOWE and Jennifer FOERSTER (ed.), When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. New York: Norton, 2020.

JUSTICE, Donald Heath. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2018.

LONG SOLDIER, Layli. Whereas. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2017.

LONG SOLDIER, Layli. “The Freedom of Real Apologies.” On Being with Krista Tippett, 30 March 2017. [Accessed July 8, 2022].

MIDGE, Tiffany. “Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas Interrogates and Subverts a National Apology to Native Americans.” World Literature Today, October 9, 2017. [Accessed 8 July 2022].

RADER, Dean. Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI. Austin: U of Texas Press, 2011.

SCHOOK, David. “Poetry as Wonder, Desire, Rage, and Memory: A Conversation with Natalie Diaz.” World Literature Today, Autumn 2020. [Accessed 29 September 2022].

Haut de page


1 Since then, tributes to Franciscan Friar Junipero Serra, a missionary who effectively enslaved Native people, have been removed from sites in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the campus of Stanford University; this fall, Governor Gavin Newsome pledged to replace the statue of Serra knocked down in Los Angeles by protesters on July 4, 2020 with a Native American memorial.

2 For details about the CHART project, see

3 The last section of Living Words, titled “Departure, or West,” includes poems engaged with “constructing fresh meaning from knowledge passed to us by our ancestors and weaving it with fresh experience” (xvi) such as Long Soldier’s “Resolution 2.” It concludes with Diaz’s “Postcolonial Love Poem,” a poem in which the wounded speaker addresses and forges a complex relationship with the wounded body of the earth through a lexicon of native plants, seeds, stones, and water.

4 To view a selection of Quick-to-See Smith’s paintings, go to

5 For the home page, see

6 This poem is also accessible through the Poetry Foundation’s web page. See

7 In a 2000 interview for SAIL, Belin stressed the connection between writing and the oral tradition. She elaborated: “I see myself as an interpreter of what happened in my parents’ generation, and I want to let people know about their experiences, especially with boarding schools and relocation. I see my books as an anthropological text–telling what it’s like for Native people.”

8 Goeman’s study of Native women mapping their nations, Mark My Words, offers a thorough account of the poet’s earlier work in the context of termination and urban relocation policies and the spatial politics of reservation lands. According to Goeman, the language Belin uses in the poems that comprise From the Belly of My Beauty (1999) “reflects a (re)mapping of the discursive settler terrain and provides us with a compass to guide us through those imagined, but very real, geographies” (110).

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Audrey Goodman, « Poet Warriors: Graphic and Linguistic Rebellion in Contemporary Native Writing »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 230 | 2023, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2023, consulté le 08 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Audrey Goodman

Georgia State University

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
  • Logo IPEAT
  • Logo Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès
  • Logo Université de Toulouse
  • Logo Mirabel
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search