Jackson explains that homelessness is something that can happen overnight. It happened to him, but he isn’t going to tell that story—he wants to keep it a secret, and “Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”
Jackson begins the story by telling his audience that there are parts of his life story that must be kept secret, specifically from white people. This implies that his audience is primarily white people, and that Jackson is wary of revealing too much to the group of people responsible for the oppression of American Indians.
Jackson is a Spokane Indian, Interior Salish. He grew up in Spokane, Washington before moving to Seattle, where he flunked out of college, worked blue-collar jobs, married two or three times, and fathered a couple of kids. Then he went crazy. “Crazy” might not be the right label, but “asocial disorder” doesn’t fit either, because it makes him sound violent, which he is not. Jackson has been homeless for six years, and he’s really good at it. He’s proud to know the best places to get free food, and he is friends with local business owners who allow him to use their clean, employees-only bathrooms. In fact, being homeless is the only thing he’s ever really been good at.
Jackson’s life has been unstable, which has culminated in homelessness. It seems that, as a result of being unable to gain financial security, he has lost lovers and children. Importantly, Jackson’s financial difficulties are at least in part a result of the oppression of American Indian communities for generations—as will soon become clear when he finds a stolen family heirloom at a pawn shop, white Americans have been stealing American Indian wealth for centuries, which leads American Indians to live poorer and less stable lives.
Jackson considers that maybe none of this is interesting, since there are lots of homeless Indians in Seattle. Seeing them is “common and boring,” and people walk by feeling angry or sad at the “terrible fate of the noble savage.” But these homeless Indians have dreams and families. In fact, Jackson knows a homeless man whose son is the editor of an East Coast newspaper—although this man might be lying, since he calls himself a “Plains Indian” rather than identifying a specific tribe, which is suspiciously generic.
Jackson often sees non-indigenous people regarding American Indians with either pity or disgust, if they acknowledge them at all—but it seems that no one does anything to help them. This will be a thread throughout the story, where (mostly white) people take pity on Jackson but their gestures of sympathy aren’t particularly helpful. The Plains Indian cannot name which tribe he is from, which points to the loss of culture and identity that is a direct result of colonial oppression and forced assimilation.
Jackson’s “regular crew” are Rose of Sharon and Junior, who are also homeless Indians. Even if nobody else cares about them, they care for one another. Jackson is jealous of Junior’s looks, though—Junior looks like a “Before Columbus Arrived Indian,” while Jackson looks like an “After Columbus Arrived Indian.” Jackson believes this makes him proof of the forced assimilation and destruction of American Indian people and cultures. Nonetheless, Jackson won’t talk about his fear of history, as silence is the best way to deal with white people.
Junior is a handsome man whose good looks Jackson associates with American Indians before Columbus arrived, suggesting that the precolonial past was an idyllic one in which American Indians were healthier and better looking, bearing no physical trace of the hardship they would experience after white people came to the Americas. Jackson himself is less handsome and his looks are more weathered, which he believes is a reflection of the hardships that American Indians face in the colonialist era. Again, Jackson directly addresses the audience when he refuses to elaborate on his fear of history, as he doesn’t want to reveal too much to his white readers who are complicit in the oppression of American Indians
Today, Jackson, Rose of Sharon, and Junior are panhandling at Pike Place Market. After a couple hours, they take their earnings—five dollars—to buy a bottle of “fortified courage.” On the way, they pass a pawnshop that Jackson has never noticed before. In the window of the pawnshop is an old powwow-dance regalia that Jackson immediately recognizes as his grandmother’s. It was stolen from her 50 years prior. He’s never seen the regalia in person, but he knows it from photographs—and, besides, it has the same color feathers and beads that his family always uses.
The cycle of earning and spending that will plague Jackson throughout the story begins here. As soon as Jackson earns money, he almost immediately spends it on alcohol for him and his friends, which makes him unable to save money. But the regalia in the window of the pawn shop adds another dimension to Jackson’s poverty: he’s not simply poor because he spends all his money immediately, he’s poor because people have stolen his family’s wealth for generations, including this regalia. The missing regalia is an important artifact culturally, as it connects him to American Indian traditions and to his ancestors who have passed on. The fact that it was stolen represents how American Indian culture and identity has been stolen from their communities due to colonization and forced assimilation.
Inside the pawn shop, Jackson tells the old white pawnbroker that the regalia is his grandmother’s, which was stolen 50 years ago. The pawnbroker is suspicious, which Jackson understands, but he says he can prove it: Indians always sew “flaws” into their regalia to show that they aren’t perfect, since only God is perfect. Jackson’s family would always sew a yellow bead onto their regalia, somewhere hard to find. The pawnbroker agrees that they can look for the bead, and when they quickly find it, the pawnbroker admits that Jackson is right.
Jackson attempts to claim what is rightfully his and is met with suspicion from the pawnbroker. The pawnbroker represents white society, which views American Indians as untrustworthy and denies them ownership of what is rightfully theirs. It’s noteworthy that the yellow bead represents imperfection but also proves the lineage of the regalia by giving it an identifying marker. In this way, the story ties imperfection to family and heritage, suggesting that whatever is broken in Jackson is also what makes him unique and himself.
When Junior starts to tell the pawnbroker that the regalia has been missing for 50 years, Jackson tells Junior that it’s his family’s story, so he should be the one to tell it. Rose of Sharon asks the pawnbroker if he’ll return the regalia to Jackson, but the pawnbroker says he “can’t afford to do the right thing” because he paid $1,000 for it. Rose of Sharon suggests going to the police, but Jackson scolds her for making such a threat. The pawnbroker says that the police wouldn’t believe their story, and his tone is sad, “as if he was sorry for taking advantage of [their] disadvantages.”
The pawnbroker knows the regalia is an important cultural artifact that belongs to Jackson. He is sympathetic and understands that the moral thing to do is return the regalia, but he is unwilling act morally because he doesn’t want shoulder the economic loss. The pawnbroker represents white Americans more broadly who sometimes admit their wrongs and feign sympathy while refusing to do anything meaningfully to right past wrongs and, in fact, continue to take advantage of systems that benefit them while oppressing others.
The pawnbroker asks for Jackson’s name, and he explains that his first and last name are both Jackson. While the pawnbroker is willing to sell Jackson the regalia for $999—taking a one-dollar loss would be, he says, “the moral thing to do”—Jackson only has five dollars to his name. So the pawnbroker offers a deal: he’ll give Jackson 24 hours to come up with $999 to buy the regalia back. Jackson agrees, and the pawnbroker gives him $20 to get him started. Jackson, Rose of Sharon, and Junior walk out of the store in search of the remaining money they need to get the regalia back.
The pawnbroker believes his offer to sell the regalia back at a one-dollar loss is moral, while ignoring the reality that making $1,000 is an impossible task for Jackson and, besides, the regalia is rightfully his. The deal alleviates the pawnbroker’s guilt over his role in oppressing American Indians because it makes him feel like he’s being generous and fair, but in fact he’s just setting Jackson up to fail. The five dollars that Jackson starts out with represents the severe lack of wealth and resources American Indian communities face due to decades of economic exploitation and theft.
His 24 hours allotted by the pawnbroker have passed, so Jackson says goodbye to the Aleut cousins. Later, he hears that the cousins waded off a dock and into the seawater, and while some Indians believed they had walked on the water itself and headed back north, others witnessed them drown. Jackson doesn’t know what to believe. Disoriented, Jackson can’t find the pawnshop and swears that it’s moved from where it had been the previous day. He wanders for blocks and asks strangers for directions.
The Aleut cousins’ deaths are not only another loss of American Indian life, but a loss of culture as well. The ceremonial songs they knew are lost with them. It’s also significant that they died trying to return home on the water, as this represents the impossibility of returning home for American Indians because their homes and land have been systematically stolen from them.
Jackson is on the verge of tears and feels like he will die if he doesn’t find the shop. He’s about to give up when he finally finds the pawnshop tucked away behind one last corner. He walks inside and says hello to the pawnbroker. The pawnbroker asks after Rose of Sharon and Junior, and Jackson tells him that they are travelling, but that “it’s O.K.” because “Indians are everywhere.”
While Jackson won’t literally die if he doesn’t find the pawnshop, one connection to his culture and identity will be lost forever if he doesn’t get the regalia back. Jackson’s statement that Indians are everywhere contradicts his experience of the last 24 hours. Every American Indian he encountered has disappeared from his life.
The pawnbroker asks Jackson if he has the money, and Jackson asks, hopefully, if his price is still the same. The pawnbroker tells him the price hasn’t changed, and Jackson wonders why he hoped it would have. He says that he only has five dollars and sets it on the counter. The pawnbroker asks if it’s the same five-dollar bill from yesterday, and Jackson tells him it’s a different one. The pawnbroker contemplates the “possibilities” before he asks Jackson if he’s worked hard for the five dollars. Jackson says yes, and the pawnbroker closes his eyes to think intensely about the “possibilities.”
Jackson returns to the pawnshop with five dollars, which is the exact same amount that he started out with. This shows how capitalism doesn’t allow for the poor to accumulate wealth, and instead keeps them right where they started out from. Like capitalist society, the pawnbroker believes that Jackson should only receive the regalia if he’s worked hard enough for it, even though it’s unfair that he should have to earn back something that was stolen from him in the first place.
The pawnbroker steps into the back room, where he’s moved Jackson’s grandmother’s powwow regalia from the front window. He holds the regalia out to Jackson and tells him to take it. Jackson reiterates that he doesn’t have the money, but the pawnbroker says, “I don’t want your money.” Jackson explains that he was set on completing his quest and wanted to win it back. The pawnbroker tells him that he did successfully win it back, and to take it before he changes his mind. Jackson exclaims to himself, “Do you know how many good men live in this world? Too many to count!”
The pawnbroker tells Jackson that he doesn’t want his money after all, revealing that he sent him on the impossible quest for $1000 dollars for no reason. Instead of being angry at the pawnbroker for wasting his time, Jackson is disappointed in himself for not successfully earning the money and he even praises the pawnbroker for his generosity. The fact that he believes the pawnbroker is a good man points to his naïve willingness to trust other people, specifically white people, even when they’ve done him wrong.
Jackson walks outside with his grandmother’s powwow regalia in hand. He knows that he is a part of the hidden yellow bead, and that the yellow bead is likewise a part of him. He wraps himself in the regalia and breathes his grandmother in. He steps into the intersection and brings the cars, the pedestrians, and the entire city around him to a stop. Jackson begins to dance and reflects that “they all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.”
When he puts on the regalia, Jackson brings his grandmother and his lost cultural identity back to life. He feels connected to his family through the yellow bead that is unique to them. While the moment is incredibly important and powerful to Jackson, the cars and pedestrians that stop to watch him may view him as just another crazy, homeless American Indian living on the streets.