“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is the story of one day in the life of Jackson Jackson, a homeless, alcoholic Spokane American Indian man living on the streets of Seattle. The story begins at noon, when Jackson and his friends, Rose of Sharon and Junior, see Jackson’s grandmother’s powwow regalia in the window of a pawnshop. The regalia had been stolen from her 50 years prior, but the pawnbroker claims that he bought the regalia for $1,000 and that he didn’t know it was stolen. He feels sympathetic toward Jackson but is only willing to sell it back to him for $999. Jackson only has five dollars, and the pawnbroker gives him $20 and 24 hours to come up with the remaining cash.
Jackson and his friends immediately spend the $25 on alcohol, get drunk, and pass out in an alley. When Jackson wakes up, he finds that Rose has abandoned them (he later learns that she hitchhiked to her sister’s reservation). Junior remains passed out, so Jackson leaves to find the money for the regalia on his own. He comes to view the task of earning the regalia back as a quest that he must complete on his own, and one that he wishes could bring his grandmother, Agnes, back to life. Although Agnes died of breast cancer when Jackson was only 14, his grief for her is all-consuming. He wishes he could have seen her dance in her regalia at a powwow and views her as a lost connection to his Spokane culture. Like Jackson, she was acutely aware of how white society discriminates against indigenous people.
After Rose of Sharon has left, Jackson meets and befriends three Aleut cousins from Alaska who came to Seattle 11 years ago on a fishing boat and are still waiting for the boat to return to take them back home. The cousins don’t have any money to give Jackson, so he then attempts to sell newspapers for a charitable organization called Real Change. The organization’s leader, Big Boss, gives him 50 papers to sell, but Jackson gives up after selling only five in one hour.
After this, Jackson plays the lottery and wins $100, $20 of which he gives to Kay, the cashier at the Korean grocery where he bought the tickets. When he goes to tell Junior the good news, he finds that his friend has left. (He later learns that Junior hitchhiked to Portland and died of exposure in an alley.) Jackson spends his remaining lottery winnings at an “official Indian bar,” where he treats the patrons to $80 worth of shots and has a sexual encounter with a woman named Irene.
After this long night of drinking, Jackson wakes up on the train tracks to a policeman, Officer Williams, kicking him the ribs. Jackson and Officer Williams have gotten to know each other throughout Jackson’s years living on the streets, and while Officer Williams can’t understand why someone as smart as Jackson is homeless, he also doesn’t have any faith in Jackson’s ability to get his life together. Jackson believes that Officer Williams is a “good cop” because he reminds him of his grandfather, who was a tribal police officer more interested in helping people than punishing them. Officer Williams gives Jackson $30 towards his regalia fund.
Jackson spends $25 of the $30 Officer Williams gave him on a meal for himself and the three Aleut cousins and then bids them farewell. (He later learns that they walked into the sea and likely drowned). Jackson’s 24 hours to earn back the regalia have come to an end. He has five dollars to his name, which is the same amount he started out with the day before. When Jackson shows up at the pawnshop, the pawnbroker asks him if he’s worked hard for that five dollars. When Jackson says yes, the pawnbroker gives him the regalia for free. Jackson then puts on the regalia and dances in the middle of the street, stopping traffic as drivers and pedestrians watch him. In this moment, he feels that he has become his grandmother.