The short story “ What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is a first-person narrative which takes the reader on a short journey in search of a refined identity. The story details the vital mission of the main protagonist Jackson Jackson, who is on the quest to reclaim his grandmother’s stolen powwow regalia. Jackson is from Spokane, Washington, and this short story brings the reader on his journey for self-redemption. Throughout this brief quest, Jackson’s relationships with others ultimately determines his character.
Due to his financial situation, Jackson has limited material possessions, but this does not limit his ability to interact with others. Where Jackson thrives is a result of a unique sense of humor allowing him to make astonishing connections with others and alleviate the discomfort of facing the world alone. Hence, Jackson can be portrayed as a friendly man with a crucial sense of modesty despite his challenging circumstances. Sherman challenges the stereotypical notions of American Indians that Jackson holds for himself by exhibiting the individuality of each character presented throughout the story.
The development of the overall character of Jackson works as a means of dispelling negative associations with the homeless culture along with the Native American community.
Sherman Alexie’s story exhibits how Native Americans have been marginalized and dismissed to the lowest form of everyday life in America. Living beneath the poverty line assigns individuals such as Jackson in less than ideal situations. In several situations, this atmosphere drives individuals to behave in ways that they may not have if surrounded by a suitable and sufficient community.
Since they are always on the run, this situation results in Jackson as well as his friends Junior and Rose to be abandoned by each other. This moment of isolation overcomes Jackson as he frequently submits to self-destructive behaviors such as drinking. At one point in the story, Jackson recalls a conversation his grandmother shared with a soldier when she was a nurse in World War II “ …how we brown people are killing other brown people so white people will remain free” to which the soldier responds “ 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 ” (Sherman). Through these words, the readers gets insight into an environment in which native Americans have been stripped of their identities. The reality of modern life has essentially pawned their way of life. Appropriation within their own culture has resulted in more issues for Jackson than he is consciously aware of. The purpose of this short story is to show how Jackson has feelings of identity loss and disappearing. “Piece by piece, I disappeared. I’ve been disappearing ever since” and ending with the successful recovery of an identity when he is able to redeem his grandmother’s regalia (Sherman).
I took my grandmothers regalia and walked outside. I knew that solitary yellow bead was a part of me. I knew I was that 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. (Sherman)
This transition exhibits a shift in Jackson. He originally viewed himself as an invisible, hand overlooked homeless man to a spectacle of success and honor even if it were for only a brief moment.
The aspect of being homeless exists further than solely financially for Jackson. “One day you have a home and the next you don’t” is a line that refers not only to Jackson’s apparent homelessness but his cultural homelessness as well (Sherman). In some ways, Jackson’s journey to redeem his grandmother’s regalia can be equated with the history of his tribe. In the same way that his grandmother’s regalia was taken and has become an object for purchase, the Spokane tribe endured centuries of exploitation by white settlers and the US government. Before he regains his grandmother’s regalia, Jackson can be viewed as invisible in Seattle “ homeless Indians are everywhere in Seattle, we are common and boring, you walk right by us with maybe a look of anger or disgust or even sadness” (Sherman). However, Jackson’s triumph of reclaiming his grandmother’s regalia stretches further than personal fulfillment. Because of this, he is rejoined with his history and heritage. When Jackson receives the regalia and dances with it, he does so because he has reclaimed that which was taken from him. When he feels that he has “ become” his grandmother, he “ breather her in,” as a way of reuniting with her (Sherman). This theory of theft and redemption is one that operates throughout the story and is central to being a Native American.
The concept of identity surfaces consistently throughout the story. Jackson presents himself as a middle-aged, homeless, alcoholic. When Jackson describes himself before he was homeless, there is no sense of idealism of his past. He states that his life was not unusual from other working class people apart from the fact that he went crazy and has since been homeless for the past six years. Jackson uses peculiar language to describe himself as being homeless in a way that we are not familiar with. He states that his homelessness is “ Probably the only thing he has ever been good at” (Sherman).This adds to the notion that Jackson believes being homeless is a significant part of his personality. It has become more of a characteristic of himself than merely a financial classification. As the story progresses, Jackson lists the unusual and special services that he receives from restaurant and store managers that allow him to use the employee bathrooms. This makes Jackson feel special and trustworthy, and this is how he differentiated himself from other homeless Indians in Seattle. Throughout the story, Jackson classifies himself as American Indian. His concept of being in tune with indigenous culture is shaped by his own experiences, as well as by popular stereotypes.He seeks to demonstrate his separation from these stereotypes often used to describe Native Americans, yet accompanies it by saying that: “ We Indians are great storytellers” (Sherman). This act of separating himself from mainstream white society as both a homeless person and a native American places Jackson in risk of being categorized as a stereotypical Indian. As a countermeasure, Jackson suggests his stereotype that of the cautious or secretive Indian who refuse to be exploited by whites. This tactic is implemented in hopes of Jackson being able to define himself by his standard.
At the start of the story, Jackson has in many ways turned his back on his culture. He moved away from the Spokane region to Seattle, even though his ancestors “ have lived within a one hundred mile radius of Spokane Washington, for at least ten thousand years” (Sherman) While in Seattle, he pursued an average American life by attending college, where he failed within two semesters. As a consequence, he was required to work various low-level jobs and eventually decided to get married two or three times with children. His friends, Rose and Junior, have also been drawn to Seattle, but as the story goes on, they both leave Seattle to different fortunes. Jackson identifies himself as pertaining to a community, even if the social order does not approve it “ I wander the streets with a regular crew- my teammates, my defenders, my posse. It’s Rose of Sharon, Junior, and me. We matter to each other even if we don’t matter to anybody else” (Sherman).The group holds its meaningfulness in how there is a value attached to one another. There is an interplay amongst each member of the group even if the normative social order does not acknowledge this aspect. Although this group shares particular similarities, each person remains independent with themselves. This is evident when Rose returns to the reservation and lives with her sisters, while Junior who travels even farther from his homeland dies in an alley. One turns to her roots and prevails, the other turns his back on his roots and diminishes.
Alexia takes the reader through the struggle that Jackson has with money. The reason why he is incapable of operating economically within the American culture is that Jackson values other things as being more crucial than money itself. This is displayed when he takes his $30, which the policeman gave to him, and treats the Aleuts he meets to breakfast, leaving himself with only $5, which is the amount he started with. Jackson never acknowledges that he needs that money and should save it. Instead, he feels his friendship with the Aleuts and his need to eat are more of a priority. This methodology of thinking derives from the high concern that he has for others. He refers to the other Indians in the bars and the Aleuts as his cousins, and the shopkeeper’s daughter as “ family”. This desire extends to desiring to make a real connection and be closer to his traditions “ Its ok, there are Indians everywhere” (Sherman). This hospitality and his enthusiasm for his friends tell us that he admires friendship and community are above all else.
Jackson’s mission to reclaim his grandmother stolen powwow regalia is not all it seems. This is something he has manifested inside himself in efforts to get closer to his family and his traditions. However, this mission is challenging because Jackson struggles to survive in the American society that continually rejects him while trying to insert himself back into his roots. Stereotypes focus on analyzing peculiar traits often affiliated with a given race or culture. Jackson is the byproduct of this stereotyping. Through this short story, Sherman has developed a persona for this character that can live as his person with his own experiences while also being part of a larger group. By doing this, Jackson gives himself the chance to connect to a broader audience with an extensive framework of people who feel the same way. However, his journey was not easy, as he was left alone to fend for himself; this story illustrates his attempts to render his identity without being reduced to a stereotype.