Indian Warrior is a near replica of a scene from Rivera's mural cycle at the Palacio de Cortés in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The portable mural’s source panel illustrates a brutal battle between the Aztecs and the Spaniards, an image inspired by the city’s pre-Columbian history. In April of 1521, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés fought a fierce battle at Cuernavaca in his drive to encircle, and eventually overtake, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.
The details of Aztec culture in Indian Warrior, such as the jaguar knight’s costume, reflect Rivera’s extensive study of pre-Columbian art. In part, the artist’s knowledge of Aztec culture was based on reproductions of post-Conquest books, such as the Codex Mendoza, a 16th-century manuscript commissioned by Spanish royal officials during the tenure of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza and executed by Indian scribes. Rivera believed that historical research was essential to making pictures that would persuade his audience of the validity of his political statements.
Rivera was an avid collector of pre-Columbian art and artifacts, and he studied objects in ethnographic collections carefully. In Indian Warrior, the jaguar knight’s knife references stone blades commonly used by Mexico’s native people. The weapon in the fresco is relatively simple, of a type used for hunting or warfare, but stone knives could be impressively ornate, equipped with figurative handles covered with mosaics of colorful shells and stones.
While focused on a specifically Mexican subject, Indian Warrior also demonstrates Rivera's intimate knowledge of European artistic traditions. During the winter of 1920 and the following spring, Rivera traveled through Italy, studying the works of Renaissance masters and the technique of fresco painting. His dramatically foreshortened conquistador recalls Italian Renaissance experiments with linear perspective and foreshortening, such as Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ of the 15th century.
For Mexican viewers of the early 1930s, Rivera's jaguar knight was not only a reminder of the nation's pre-Columbian past but also an emblem of modern-day folk culture. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, jaguar costumes appeared in fighting competitions and folk dance performances in numerous Mexican states, including Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Chiapas, and Tabasco.