“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” can be read as an allegory for how capitalism fails American Indians. At the heart of the story is Jackson’s quest to come up with nearly $1,000 to buy his grandmother’s powwow regalia from a pawn shop, regalia that was stolen from her 50 years before. The white pawnbroker may feel that he’s offering a fair bargain (taking a slight loss on an item he bought without knowing it was stolen, while Jackson gets his heirloom back), but Jackson’s 24 hours of desperate moneymaking show that this proposition was always doomed. Jackson is unemployed and homeless—he has no way of making that kind of money and no friends wealthy enough to lend it to him. This plot evokes generations of predatory capitalism ruining American Indians’ lives. The stolen powwow regalia echoes the way white settlers stole Indian land, and Jackson’s quest to buy this stolen heirloom back shows how fundamentally unfair it is to ask someone without access to money—in fact, someone whose capital has been stolen for generations—to “earn” what should simply belong to them.
Throughout the story Jackson is caught in an endless cycle of earning and then immediately spending his money, which makes him unable to save. His difficult life circumstances drive him to drink, and his addiction to alcohol eats up much of the money he earns, which keeps him on the streets. By the time Jackson reaches the end of his 24-hour quest to earn $1,000, he has just five dollars left, which is exact same amount that he started out with. This is a moment of cruel irony that represents the ways in which capitalism keeps poor people from accumulating wealth and instead traps them exactly where they started out in life. Additionally, although the regalia was stolen and rightfully belongs to Jackson, he’s asked to buy it back, which is another way that American Indians have been denied wealth. Just as someone stole and sold the powwow regalia, white colonists have, for generations, stolen American Indian wealth and resources and then forced American Indians to exist without access to capital. The regalia represents the generations of wealth that have been stolen from American Indians—the most important example of which is their land, which is the foundation of economic success in American society.
Furthermore, Jackson’s habit of giving his money away to others represents how American Indian culture in incompatible with, and even runs directly counter to, the individualistic and profit-driven motivations that are the heart of capitalism. With the initial $5 they earned from panhandling, and the $20 from the pawnbroker, Jackson treats Rose of Sharon and Junior to three bottles of alcohol under the pretense that it’ll help them brainstorm ideas to earn money for the regalia. Then, when Jackson wins $100 on a lottery ticket, he gives a portion of his prize money to the cashier at the grocery store where he purchased the ticket. When the cashier tries to reject his offer, knowing that he’s homeless and struggling, Jackson insists that “It’s an Indian thing. When you win, you’re supposed to share with your family.” Although she is not actually Jackson’s blood relative, Jackson’s definition of family extends beyond the nuclear family (itself an invention of capitalism) to a more communal sense of the term. That he shares the money out of commitment to an American Indian tradition likewise demonstrates how capitalism is opposed to his cultural norms. Therefore, he must either retain his cultural beliefs and suffer the economic consequences, or abandon his beliefs in pursuit of capitalist success. Later that night, Jackson spends the remaining $80 of his prize on the patrons in “Big Heart’s” bar. He calls the American Indians there his cousins, even though they are strangers to him, because he says that “Indians like to belong, so we all [pretend] to be cousins.” At the end of the story, when Jackson has $30 to his name, he spends $25 of it on breakfast for himself and the Aleut cousins whom he’s returned to throughout the course of his quest. Before inviting them out to eat, the Aleuts sing Jackson ceremonial songs that speak to Jackson’s grief for his grandmother, and his decision to treat them to breakfast can be read as a reciprocal gesture and thank you for what they’ve given him.
Finally, Jackson’s insistence that he must earn the regalia back himself points to how he’s internalized the capitalist and American belief in meritocracy (the belief that individuals deserve wealth and economic stability only if they’ve invested time, effort, and hard work into earning it), despite that fact that the regalia is rightfully his and is owed back to him. When the pawnbroker gives him the regalia for free at the end of the story because he’s decided that Jackson worked hard for the five dollars he has, Jackson is disappointed, because he was invested in truly winning it back. He even praises the pawnbroker for his gesture, exclaiming, “Do you know how many good men live in this world? Too many to count!” Even though the pawnbroker wasted Jackson’s time with the impossible quest for $1000, Jackson’s still regards the pawnbroker as a good man. This reveals the extent to which Jackson has internalized the capitalist belief in meritocracy. He still believes it’s fair to expect people to earn what they want through hard work, even when that something is owed to them in the first place.
Money, Capitalism, and Morality ThemeTracker
Money, Capitalism, and Morality Quotes in What You Pawn I Will Redeem
I set the crumpled Lincoln on the countertop. The pawnbroker studied it.
“Is that the same five dollars from yesterday?”
“No, it’s different.”
He thought about the possibilities.
“Did you work hard for this money?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“Thank you,” I said and gave her one of the bills.
“I can’t take that,” she said. “It’s your money.”
“No, it’s tribal. It’s an Indian thing. When you win, you’re supposed to share with your family.”
“I’m not your family.”
“Yes, you are.”
She smiled. She kept the money.