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Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”


Literature has a unique connection with the real world as, through literary works, writers reflect the complexity of human nature and relations. Especially through a first-person perspective, readers have an opportunity to understand a different mindset and culture better. In particular, in Alexie’s short story What You Pawn I Will Redeem, the author touches upon the themes of cultural identity, homelessness, stereotyping, and ethnic heritage. Alexie (2003) tells the story of the main character Jackson, a middle-aged, currently homeless, “Spokane Indian boy, an Interior Salish” (para. 2). Jackson goes on a quest to redeem his grandmother’s powwow-dance regalia that was stolen fifty years before. He has only one day to collect a thousand dollars to reclaim the powwow from a pawnshop. However, the quest after the family heirloom turns into the search for the personal identity of the main character, intricately linking his past and future and making him redefine his experience as a homeless Indian in Seattle. What You Pawn I Will Redeem presents the message of cultural identity through the setting, symbolism, and historical context of the story.

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Alexie’s What You Pawn I Will Redeem

The primary source of this literary analysis is Alexie’s short story What You Pawn I Will Redeem, which contributes to the discourse on cultural and personal identity in the contemporary world. Even though Alexie (2003) makes the story revolve around Jackson’s attempts to get enough money to buy his family’s heirloom, the message reaches beyond a lone Indian’s experience. The author uses setting, symbolism, and historical context to make a statement and present the main character’s inner conflict. The story involves more than merely a quest after the heirloom as it incorporates the metaphorical search for cultural identity, in all its intricacy.


As part of the setting, place plays a crucial role in representing the message of cultural identity in the story as it indicates the conflict between the main character’s descent and the environment where he lives. In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, Jackson lives in Seattle, and the streets of the city are the stage for most of the events happening to him (Alexie, 2003). The pawnshop is a crucial setting to the story as it becomes the starting and the endpoint of Jackson’s journey. However, more urban places constitute the background for the main character’s quest after the precious regalia, such as a 7-Eleven, an alley, a newspaper publisher, a Korean grocery shop, and a bar (Alexie, 2003). A change of scenery reflects the life of a homeless man who struggles to save money but ends up spending them on other Indians. Jackson’s behavior and homelessness both result from his identity loss (Furlan, 2017). Despite his Native American heritage, he lacks the feeling of belongingness, physical and cultural. Hence, the place becomes the story’s driving force, leading Jackson to his lost identity, a metaphoric powwow.

Time is another aspect of the setting which drives the plot and intensifies the conflict of lost cultural identity. The story is set in the present, but Jackson’s desire to redeem the stolen heirloom indicates his attempt to connect with his past and ancestry. Even though Alexie (2003) presents Jackson’s journey and attempts to get back the item that once belonged to his grandmother, other Indians’ experiences incorporated in the narrator’s story as flashbacks show the connection with the cultural past. Eventually, time and place come to the point of collision as Jackson gets the powwow back and dances on the street while wearing it (Furlan, 2017). This moment indicates a symbolic regained connection with the character’s culture. Therefore, the plot and climax of the story What You Pawn I Will Redeem depend on its setting.


Symbolism is a crucial literary device in What You Pawn I Will Redeem, and the key elements of the story are symbolic. First, the old powwow-dance regalia can be viewed not only as an ethnic heritage but as a symbol of the entire Native American culture in the context of the story. As the piece of clothing gets lost, so does Jackson’s connection with his tribe and nation (Furlan, 2017). The yellow bead sewed in the regalia stands for imperfection. At the same time, it makes the item even more precious to Jackson and his family, indicating their belongingness to the Native American culture. Hence, the major elements of What You Pawn I Will Redeem are significant to the story’s purpose with their symbolism.

Besides, the title of Alexie’s (2003) short story has a symbolic meaning which cannot be seen without reading and analyzing it. What You Pawn I Will Redeem refers to the process of pawning or exchanging something valuable at a pawnshop for a loan. Apart from the transparent reference to the regalia that Jackson attempts to redeem, the title refers to the whole heritage of the Native Americans. Besides, pawnshops’ attendance is often a result of alcoholism, an issue which the main character seems to have. In this regard, Alexie (2003) gives the readers an idea of Jackson’s past reasons for becoming homeless, a secret which “Indians have to work hard to keep … from hungry white folks” (para. 1). Therefore, the story’s title refers to the issues of lost cultural connection with Native American heritage and the underlying problems.

Historical Context

The historical context constitutes a significant part of the story as it is based on historical issues of Native American displacement, central to the story. In this regard, Peterson (2010) contributed to the discussion of the oppression Native Americans experience in the U.S. Alexie’s (2003) story highlights the lasting effects of colonialism and shows them through Jackson’s experience and struggles. The main character refers to the violent and oppressive episodes in U.S. history. In this regard, Jackson is homeless not only as a homeless Indian living on the streets of Seattle due to personal difficulties but also as an Indian or Native American suffering from the consequences of forced removal and lost lands. Therefore, What You Pawn I Will Redeem portrays a man who struggles with his life and cultural identity as a result of violent historical events.

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To summarize, What You Pawn I Will Redeem addresses the issue of cultural identity implementing the setting, symbolism, and historical context as primary literary devices of the story. The setting allows the readers to immerse in the protagonist’s experience and understand his inner conflict. The symbolism used by the author aims to emphasize the true purpose of the story told by a witty homeless man with a sharp sense of humor, namely, to draw attention to the identity loss. The historical context helps the readers draw connections with historical issues associated with Native American displacement and its consequences. Overall, the story implies the literary devices to create an involving experience for readers, redefining the concept of a Native American.


Alexie, S. (2003). What you pawn I will redeem. The New Yorker. Web.

Furlan, L. (2017). Indigenous cities: Urban Indian fiction and the histories of relocation. University of Nebraska Press. Web.

Peterson, N. (2010). “If I were Jewish, how would I mourn the dead?”: Holocaust and genocide in the work of Sherman Alexie. Melus, 35(3), 63-84. Web.

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