What You Pawn I Will Redeem


Sherman Alexie

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What You Pawn I Will Redeem Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sherman Alexie's What You Pawn I Will Redeem. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sherman Alexie

Like Jackson Jackson, the protagonist of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Sherman Alexie is a Spokane American Indian. He grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation with his mother and father, who were both alcoholics, although his mother later got sober. Alexie was born with hydrocephalus and suffered from various health issues throughout his childhood as a result, including seizures that prevented him from participating in different cultural rites of passage on the reservation. He was bullied at school but was academically gifted, which eventually led him to transfer to a high school off the reservation. He had more educational opportunities here, but he also struggled as the only American Indian student at the school. His acclaimed young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is semi-autobiographical and depicts a fictionalized version of a young Alexie navigating these hurdles. Outside of writing, Alexie supports various organizations and initiative focused on giving American Indian youth opportunities to explore the arts and develop stronger connections to their cultures. He currently lives and writes in Seattle, Washington with his wife and two sons.
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Historical Context of What You Pawn I Will Redeem

“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” gives insight into the contemporary issues that affect American Indian communities as a result of both historical and ongoing displacement and oppression. Many of Jackson’s problems—such as poverty, homelessness, and alcoholism—are struggles that are widespread among American Indian people. White colonists and the U.S. government carried out genocide against American Indians for hundreds of years, and many of those who weren’t killed were forced to assimilate through boarding schools or Christian missions in the 19th and 20th centuries. These practices prevented American Indian people from transferring their cultural traditions and languages to future generations. The Indian Appropriation Act of 1851 marked the beginning of the reservation system that is still in place today and has contributed to the marginalization and oppression of American Indian communities. For example, American Indians see higher rates of illnesses like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and alcoholism due to lack of adequate health care infrastructure on reservations. Reservations also lack quality housing and educational opportunities. A significant portion of reservation lands are held in trust by the federal government, rather than belonging to tribes themselves. This continued dispossession of land contributes to intergenerational poverty and a lack of resources among American Indians.

Other Books Related to What You Pawn I Will Redeem

Although published in 1974, James Welch’s novel Winter in Blood explores many of the same themes that appear in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” including grief, the impacts of colonialism on American Indian culture, and alcoholism. These similarities highlight how American Indians have been raising awareness of the issues their communities face for decades, yet still receive inadequate support from American society at large. Alexie produced a film adaptation of Winter in the Blood in 2012. More recently, Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, explores American Indian life (specifically in large, West Coast cities) and highlights similar issues such as alcoholism, mental illness, unemployment, and questions of culture and identity.
Key Facts about What You Pawn I Will Redeem
  • Full Title: What You Pawn I Will Redeem
  • When Written: 2003
  • Where Written: Seattle, Washington
  • When Published: 2003
  • Literary Period: Contemporary Fiction; Indigenous Nationalism
  • Genre: Short Story, Native American Literature
  • Setting: Seattle, Washington
  • Climax: Jackson dances in the street while wearing his grandmother’s regalia.
  • Antagonist: The Pawnbroker, white society
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for What You Pawn I Will Redeem

The Silver Screen. Alexie wrote the screenplay for Smoke Signals, which was the first film whose cast, director, and production team were all American Indian. The screenplay is based on his short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Role Models. Alexie’s stories were removed from Arizona school curriculum under House Bill 2281, which was later ruled unconstitutional because it was determined that this ban targeted and discriminated against Mexican Americans. In response to the ban, Alexie emphasized the importance of giving non-white students books featuring people of color as a means of empowering them to change the world.