In Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Jackson finds his late grandmother’s beloved powwow regalia, which was stolen from her 50 years before, hanging in the window of a pawn shop. The white pawnbroker tells Jackson that he’ll sell him the regalia at a slight loss, since it’s the “moral thing” to reunite the regalia with its rightful owner. But nonetheless, Jackson must come up with nearly $1,000, which is essentially impossible for him; he’s homeless and unemployed, and whatever money he does come up with, he spends on liquor or gives away to other struggling American Indians. So, while this might seem like a fair bargain to the white pawn shop owner, Jackson’s fruitless quest to gather the money shows how American Indians continue to be systematically oppressed by a culture that doesn’t value or understand them. Furthermore, Jackson’s efforts during his 24 hours of moneymaking show the lengths that American Indians must go in order to preserve their culture and carry it from one generation to the next.
The relationship between Jackson and the pawnbroker is a metaphor for how white people have systemically stripped American Indians of their cultures and identities since the initial colonization of the Americas. When Jackson proves that the regalia belongs to his family, the pawnbroker doesn’t deny that it’s rightfully Jackson’s—but he still refuses to give it back to Jackson because he doesn’t want to shoulder the economic loss. This relationship mirrors the historical relationship between white colonizers and American Indians: colonizers stole American Indian land and, in the process, destroyed American Indian people’s cultures and identities (and indeed their very lives) for economic and political gain. Even in the present day, when white people like the pawnbroker are more willing to admit that land and culture was stolen from its rightful owners, white society is still unwilling to make reparations by giving back stolen land and cultural artifacts, because to do so would come at an economic cost. In the present, white people like the pawnbroker continue to actively inhibit American Indians from passing their culture from one generation to the next.
In light of this symbolism, Jackson comes to understand his quest to earn back his grandmother’s powwow regalia as a way to regain the cultural knowledge that his family has lost over the generations. Because his grandmother’s powwow regalia was stolen from her, and because she died when he was still young, Jackson never got to see his grandmother in her regalia. His deepest wish is that he could have seen her dance. His cultural inheritance and identity exists only in the photographs he’s seen of her wearing the regalia, which is representative of how his entire cultural identity feels lost to and trapped in the past. Therefore, Jackson comes to view earning the regalia back as a quest that he must complete to bring his stolen culture back into his life. At one point, he muses, “I know it’s crazy, but I wondered if I could bring my grandmother back to life if I bought back her regalia.” While Jackson knows he can’t literally bring his grandmother back to life, earning the regalia back would give him a tangible connection to her and would mean that his culture (or at least a small piece of it) could be passed on to the next generation.
Furthermore, this quest to earn the $1,000 to buy back the powwow regalia represents the lengths that American Indians have had to go to in order to preserve their cultures amid centuries of violence and destruction. Jackson lacks the resources to earn back the powwow regalia, and he lacks the resources precisely because white society oppresses him and his fellow American Indians. Without the proper resources, the sheer impossibility of his task reflects the often-insurmountable obstacles American Indians face if they want to preserve their cultures. The fact that their cultures live on to thrive in the present despite the odds stacked against them is testimony to their drive to keep their identities alive, and this resolve is reflected in Jackson’s determination to win back the regalia. Even though he likely knows that he won’t be able to raise $1,000 in 24 hours, he tries anyway.
In addition, Jackson speaks directly to the readers in a way that presumes his audience is primarily white people, and in his narration is careful not to reveal secrets that white people may use to further their destruction of American Indian culture. In the very first line of the story, Jackson makes clear that he won’t be telling the story of how he ended up homeless because it’s his “secret story” and “Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.” This direct address presumes that the readers of his story are the “hungry white folks” that Jackson and other American Indians must keep at arm’s length if they are to preserve their cultural “secrets.” Similarly, Jackson mentions that he is often scared of history because of the horrors and atrocities that have been carried out on American Indians, but he won’t reveal the depths of his fears to his readers, as he knows that “silence is the best method of dealing with white folks.” Again, this suggests that American Indians must be careful not to reveal anything that white people may later use against them and for their own destruction.
By the end of the story, the pawnbroker agrees to give Jackson the regalia, and Jackson symbolically carries his grandmother’s legacy into the present by putting on her regalia and dancing in the street. He feels that he has become his grandmother, and his dancing embodies the generational transfer of cultural knowledge and identity. However, his surroundings haven’t changed—the passersby (who are implied to be white) stop and stare, and there’s no indication that they understand the significance of what he’s doing. This suggests that as Jackson fights to keep his cultural legacy and inheritance alive, white society will likely continue to misunderstand and harm American Indians like him.
Native American Culture and Identity ThemeTracker
Native American Culture and Identity Quotes in What You Pawn I Will Redeem
One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.
Probably none of this interests you. I probably don’t interest you much. Homeless Indians are everywhere in Seattle. We’re common and boring, and you walk right on by us, with maybe a look of anger or disgust or even sadness at the terrible fate of the noble savage.
If you put Junior and me next to each other, he’s the Before Columbus Arrived Indian, and I’m the After Columbus Arrived Indian. I am living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins. But I’m not going to let you know how scared I sometimes get of history and its ways. I’m a strong man, and I know that silence is the best way of dealing with white folks.
I knew that the solitary yellow bead was a part of me. I knew that I was the yellow bead in part. Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection. Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.
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.”
“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.