The many deaths referenced in the story reflect the horrific conditions of American Indian life. For instance, Jackson’s grandmother died from cancer that was caused either by the uranium mine on her reservation, an injury from getting run over by a motorcycle, or her grief over her stolen powwow regalia. Each of these explanations points to the disproportionate hardships that American Indians face, which often shorten their lives. Furthermore, the community of homeless American Indians that Jackson lives among in Seattle also frequently meet tragic fates. For instance, the Aleut cousins Jackson hangs out with appear to walk into the sea and drown because they realize they can’t go home to Alaska, and Jackson’s close friend Junior later dies of exposure in an alley. The story depicts a cycle in which white people oppress American Indians, American Indians die horrible deaths because of it, and those left alive are forced into constant grief. This grief then makes their lives even harder, leading to their early deaths. But in addition to providing evidence of the cruel conditions of American Indian life, these deaths point to another tragedy: the loss of indigenous culture among the younger generations. Part of Jackson’s deep mourning for his grandmother has to do with his loss of cultural knowledge and connection in the wake of her death; had she lived, she could have shared more memories with him and connected him more deeply to his heritage and culture. Because of this, death in the story is doubly tragic; it both reflects the hardship of Indian life and contributes to that hardship by estranging the living from their culture.
Jackson’s memories of his grandparents are limited due to their early and traumatic deaths. Rather than the cultural inheritance he longs for, Jackson has inherited an unrelenting grief that fuels the mental illness and alcoholism keeping him on the streets. When Officer Williams finds Jackson passed out on the train tracks, Jackson tells him that got so drunk and passed out there because he’s mourning his grandmother. Although she passed away years ago, Jackson explains, “I’ve been killing myself ever since she died.” This speaks to the deep grief he feels for the people and culture that he’s lost, which is part of what’s driven him to alcoholism and homelessness. Officer Williams asks Jackson who beat him up, and Jackson jokes that it was “Mr. Grief” who “always wins.” This personification of grief as what brutalized Jackson’s face the night before highlights its painful physical and emotional effects. Grief is literally a wound that contributes to the many hardships of American Indian life. It also suggests that grief can haunt generations who feel that pieces of their identity have been lost along with their dead family members and friends. Later, Jackson asks the Aleut cousins to sing ceremonial American Indian songs about wishing and hoping, because he’s wishing and hoping that his grandmother was still alive. The cousins respond that every song they know is about this longing. This points to the prevalence of grief in American Indian life.
Jackson’s grandmother, especially, represents how the horrible and often deadly conditions that American Indians must contend with destroy American Indian culture, preventing it from being passed on from one generation to the next. Each member of his family has a theory as to what could have caused his grandmother’s cancer, and Jackson believes that it could have “started in her broken heart and then leaked out into her breasts” after her regalia was stolen. Her broken heart represents the pain of having one’s culture stolen and erased, and the idea that her broken heart could have killed her suggests that the pain of being separated from one’s culture can be fatal (even if indirectly). One of the few things Jackson remembers from his grandmother is a story about her time working as a military nurse in World War II. She met a Maori man while stationed in Australia who explained the cruel irony of the war was that “brown people are killing other brown people so white people will remain free.” Rather than inheriting cultural artifacts like the regalia, this story Jackson has inherited from his grandmother is one of death and resulting grief suffered at the hands of the white society.
Finally, many of the American Indians that Jackson meets during his quest likewise meet tragic deaths. Jackson thinks of his friend Junior as a “Before Columbus Indian,” as compared to an “After Columbus Indian” like himself who is “living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins.” In this way, Jackson views Junior as a link to a past before colonization, and this link is lost when Junior later dies of exposure in an alley behind a Hilton Hotel. The juxtaposition of his horrible death and the Hilton Hotel, and symbol of wealth and luxury, represents how colonial destruction lives on in the present and continues to prevent American Indian people from carrying their cultures on to future generations. Likewise, the Aleut cousins later die a tragic death—and with them, their cultural knowledge (including the ceremonial songs they sang to Jackson) disappears. The Aleut cousins die trying to return home, and their deaths therefore represent the impossibility of returning to a home that’s been destroyed and erased. Death and grief are so present throughout “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” that they almost become characters in their own right who haunt Jackson and other American Indians throughout the story. Death erases their cultural ties to past and future generations, and their resulting grief exacerbates the many hardships they face.
Death and Grief ThemeTracker
Death and Grief Quotes in What You Pawn I Will Redeem
I wondered if my grandmother’s cancer had started when somebody stole her powwow regalia. Maybe the cancer started in her broken heart and then leaked out into her breasts. I know it’s crazy, but I wondered if I could bring my grandmother back to life if I bought back her regalia.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he asked.
“How we brown people are killing other brown people so white people will remain free.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“Well, sometimes I think of it that way. And other times, I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused.”
“And somebody beat the hell out of you,” he said. “You remember who?”
“Mr. Grief and I went a few rounds.”
“It looks like Mr. Grief knocked you out.”
“Mr. Grief always wins.”
“You Indians. How the hell do you laugh so much? I just picked your ass off the railroad tracks, and you’re making jokes. Why the hell do you do that?”
“The two funniest tribes I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.”
The Aleuts sang their strange and beautiful songs. I listened. They sang about my grandmother and their grandmothers. They were lonely for the cold and snow. I was lonely for everybody.