Emergence Magazine

Artwork by James Lee Chiahan

The First Water Is the Body

by Natalie Diaz


Natalie Diaz is a Mojave / Akimel O’odham poet, language activist, educator, and former professional basketball player. Her poetry collections include Postcolonial Love Poem, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry; and When My Brother Was an Aztec, winner of an American Book Award. She is an enrolled member of the Gila Indian Community and lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she has directed a Mojave language revitalization program and currently teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at Arizona State University.


James Lee Chiahan is a Taiwanese-Canadian artist and graphic designer. He is interested in creating images that recall moments in everyday life that are deeply affecting but difficult to explain. His clients include The Marshall Project, The California Sunday, and The On Being Project. He is currently based in Montreal, Canada.

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body.

I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not metaphor.

When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle of my body.

So far, I have said the word river in every stanza. I don’t want to waste water. I must preserve the river in my body.

In future stanzas, I will try to be more conservative.

The Spanish called us, Mojave. Colorado, the name they gave our river because it was silt-red-thick.

Natives have been called red forever. I have never met a red Native, not even on my reservation, not even at the National Museum of the American Indian, not even at the largest powwow in Parker, Arizona.

I live in the desert along a dammed blue river. The only red people I’ve seen are white tourists sunburned after staying out on the water too long.

‘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.

Translated into English, ‘Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.

This is a poor translation, like all translations.

In American imaginations, the logic of this image will lend itself to surrealism or magical realism—

Americans prefer a magical red Indian, or a shaman, or a fake Indian in a red dress, over a real Native. Even a real Native carrying the dangerous and heavy blues of a river in her body.

What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America. America is my myth.

Jacques Derrida says, Every text remains in mourning until it is translated.

When Mojaves say the word for tears, we return to our word for river, as if our river were flowing from our eyes. A great weeping is how you might translate it. Or a river of grief.

But who is this translation for and will they come to my language’s four-night funeral to grieve what has been lost in my efforts at translation? When they have drunk dry my river will they join the mourning procession across our bleached desert?

The word for drought is different across many languages and lands. The ache of thirst, though, translates to all bodies along the same paths—the tongue, the throat, the kidneys. No matter what language you speak, no matter the color of your skin.

We carry the river, its body of water, in our body.

I do not mean to imply a visual relationship. Such as: a Native woman on her knees holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter whose label has a picture of a Native woman on her knees holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter whose label has a picture of a Native woman on her knees . . .

We carry the river, its body of water, in our body. I do not mean to invoke the Droste effect—this is not a picture of a river within a picture of a river.

I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right now.

This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things—they are more than close together or side by side. They are same—body, being, energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.

The body is beyond six senses. Is sensual. An ecstatic state of energy, always on the verge of praying, or entering any river of movement.

Energy is a moving river moving my moving body.

In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same. The words are separated only by the letters ‘ii and ‘a: ‘iimat for body, ‘amat for land. In conversation, we often use a shortened form for each: mat-. Unless you know the context of a conversation, you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land. You might not know which has been injured, which is remembering, which is alive, which was dreamed, which needs care. You might not know we mean both.

If I say, My river is disappearing, do I also mean, My people are disappearing?

How can I translate—not in words but in belief—that a river is a body, as alive as you or I, that there can be no life without it?

John Berger wrote, True translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal.

Between the English translation I offered, and the urgency I felt typing ‘Aha Makav in the lines above, is not the point where this story ends or begins.

We must go to the place before those two points—we must go to the third place that is the river.

We must go to the point of the lance entering the earth, and the river becoming the first body bursting from earth’s clay body into my sudden body. We must submerge, come under, beneath those once warm red waters now channeled blue and cool, the current’s endless yards of emerald silk wrapping the body and moving it, swift enough to take life or give it.

We must go until we smell the black root-wet anchoring the river’s mud banks. We must go beyond beyond to a place where we have never been the center, where there is no center—beyond, toward what does not need us yet makes us.

What is this third point, this place that breaks a surface, if not the deep-cut and crooked bone bed where the Colorado River runs—a one-thousand-four-hundred-and-fifty-mile thirst—into and through a body?

Berger called it the pre-verbal. Pre-verbal as in the body when the body was more than body. Before it could name itself body and be limited, bordered by the space body indicated.

Pre-verbal is the place where the body was yet a green-blue energy greening, greened and bluing the stone, red and floodwater, the razorback fish, the beetle, and the cottonwoods’ and willows’ shaded shadows.

Pre-verbal was when the body was more than a body and possible.

One of its possibilities was to hold a river within it.

A river is a body of water. It has a foot, an elbow, a mouth. It runs. It lies in a bed. It can make you good. It has a head. It remembers everything.

If I was created to hold the Colorado River, to carry its rushing inside me, if the very shape of my throat, of my thighs is for wetness, how can I say who I am if the river is gone?

What does ‘Aha Makav mean if the river is emptied to the skeleton of its fish and the miniature sand dunes of its dry silten beds?

If the river is a ghost, am I?

Unsoothable thirst is one type of haunting.

A phrase popular or more known to non-Natives during the Standing Rock encampment was, Water is the first medicine. It is true.

Where I come from we cleanse ourselves in the river. I mean: The water makes us strong and able to move forward into what is set before us to do with good energy.

We cannot live good, we cannot live at all, without water.

If we poison and use up our water, how will we clean our wounds and our wrongs? How will we wash away what we must leave behind us? How will we make ourselves new?

To thirst and to drink is how one knows they are alive and grateful.

To thirst and then not drink is . . .

If your builder could place a small red bird in your chest to beat as your heart, is it so hard for you to picture the blue river hurtling inside the slow muscled curves of my long body? Is it too difficult to believe it is as sacred as a breath or a star or a sidewinder or your own mother or your beloveds?

If I could convince you, would our brown bodies and our blue rivers be more loved and less ruined?

The Whanganui River in New Zealand now has the same legal rights of a human being. In India, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers now have the same legal status of a human being. Slovenia’s constitution now declares access to clean drinking water to be a national human right. While in the United States, we are teargassing and rubber-bulleting and kenneling Natives trying to protect their water from pollution and contamination at Standing Rock in North Dakota. We have yet to discover what the effects of lead-contaminated water will be on the children of Flint, Michigan, who have been drinking it for years.

America is a land of bad math and science. The Right believes Rapture will save them from the violence they are delivering upon the earth and water; the Left believes technology, the same technology wrecking the earth and water, will save them from the wreckage or help them build a new world on Mars.

We think of our bodies as being all that we are: I am my body. This thinking helps us disrespect water, air, land, one another. But water is not external from our body, our self.

My Elder says, Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water, we will not live more than a week.

The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body. What we do to one—to the body, to the water—we do to the other.

Toni Morrison writes, All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Back to the body of earth, of flesh, back to the mouth, the throat, back to the womb, back to the heart, to its blood, back to our grief, back back back.

Will we remember from where we’ve come? The water.

And once remembered, will we return to that first water, and in doing so return to ourselves, to each other?

Do you think the water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?



Natalie Diaz, “The First Water Is the Body” from Postcolonial Love Poem. Copyright ©2020 by Natalie Diaz. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC, on behalf of Graywolf Press, graywolfpress.org.

Read More Stories from Shifting Landscapes

Step further into the changes enveloping us with Vol 4. Shifting Landscapes. The voices gathered here bear witness to the Earth’s changing face and offer ways to orient ourselves in this time of great loss, possibility, and transformation. Spanning 275 pages, this issue is our most photographic to date and includes a special practice insert.

Order Volume 4

Read More Poems

10 10