“What You Pawn, I Will Redeem” is a chef-d’oeuvre short story by Sherman Alexie written and published in 2003 for the first time. The story is about a broke and homeless Spokane Indian named Jackson Jackson, who has to look for $1,000 to redeem his grandmother’s regalia, which from a pawnshop. The entire story takes place in Seattle and all events unfold within one day. Jackson narrates about his past, poverty, and life struggles primarily because of the injustices that Indian natives endured in America, specifically due to the loss of their land and culture. Every time Jackson tries to save money to buy back his grandmother’s regalia, he spends it on unrelated ventures, such as binge drinking with his friends. While this story might appear as a narration of a broke Spokane Indian and his tribulations on the streets of Seattle, it is full of underlying meaning as a lamentation of lost culture, identity, and land. This paper is an explication essay discussing the underlying meaning in the story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”.
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The title of the story acts as a framing device that prepares the reader of what to expect in terms of the overall meaning and agenda. Normally, the phrases “pawn” and “redeem” are part of the argot used in the pawn business. In this context, a pawn is a valuable item that the owner surrenders to a pawnshop in exchange for a loan. Therefore, this item could be ultimately redeemed after the repayment of the loan with the agreed interest. However, some pawns are never redeemed and thus they remain in the pawnshops, which is the case with the regalia belonging to Jackson’s grandmother. Additionally, the terms “pawn” and “redeem” have different meanings, which are central to this story. First, a pawn could be used to describe a person being used by others for their selfish gains. In other words, a pawn is manipulated and taken advantage of, which then means such an individual is taken hostage. Similarly, redeem could be used to mean atonement or correction of errors made in the past. These definitions form the basis of understanding this story in its context.
The grandmother’s regalia in the pawnshop is used figuratively to imply the lost culture and land by native Indians in the US in the hands of Europeans during colonization. The pawnshop in this context is the American culture, which is deliberately designed to marginalize and relegate Native Americans to the lowest levels of society. For instance, Jackson is poor and homeless, which is common among Native Indians in the US, despite having lived in the country for many years (Daragmeh 103). Jackson says, “…my people have lived within a hundred-mile radius of Spokane, for at least ten thousand years…flunked out after two semesters, worked various blue- and blue-collar jobs, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy” (Alexie 1). This narrative sounds like the natural progression of many Native Americans, whereby due to marginalization, which is rooted in historical injustices, these ethnic communities are trapped in a cycle of poverty that is almost impossible to break.
The underlying meaning in this story highlights how Native Americans were used as pawns in the colonialists’ quest for power and land. According to Banner, when English colonialists arrived in North America, they started looking for ways to dispossess Native Americans of their land by rationalizing their “conquest of New England by refusing to extend rights of property to Indians” (10). Therefore, the imperialists came up with unfavorable laws, contracts, and treaties, which ultimately led to the revolution of land policy and Native Americans moved from being landowners to occupants. This assertion explains why most Natives in the US are disproportionately affected by the problem of homelessness. Jackson posits, “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” (Alexie 1). In this case, Native Indians were used as pawns and they were forced to hock their land and culture, with the hope that they would somehow redeem themselves.
Therefore, the grandmother’s regalia at the pawnshop is symbolic of the lost Native Indians’ land, culture, and identity. Jackson says, “I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully. And I didn’t set any land-speed records running out the door. Piece by piece, I disappeared. I’ve been disappearing ever since” (Alexie 1). This claim is symbolic because while Jackson could be talking about himself, the underlying message is that of the increasing loss of his culture, which has been disappearing ever since colonization and the continued institutionalized marginalization in the modern American society.
However, despite the concerted efforts of Native Americans to regain their place in contemporary society, the underlying challenge is insurmountable as depicted in this story. Jackson knows that he has only 24 hours to look for $1,000 to redeem his grandmother’s regalia. He is on a mission and he declares, “It’s a quest now. I need to win it back by myself” (Alexie 7). However, when he gets some money, instead of saving it towards the redeeming of the regalia, he spends it on alcohol together with his friends. This scenario underscores the problems that Native Americans face in the attempt to break the cycle of poverty that compels the majority of them to live on the streets just like the protagonist in this story. At a personal level, Jackson is a flawed character, but he represents the situation of the majority of his people. He says, “As an alcoholic Indian with a busted stomach, I always hope I can keep enough food in me to stay alive” (Alexie 8). His only hope is to survive and live to see another day, and thus redeeming himself and his culture remains a distant dream.
Nevertheless, despite the grim picture painted by Jackson’s narration, he also spreads a message of hope. While he does not get the needed $1000 to redeem the regalia, he somehow manages to get it after paying $5. This aspect shows the resilience of the Native American culture and people to reclaim their rightful position in society. Even in the midst of all the challenges, Jackson remains optimistic and he posits, “I know it’s crazy, but I wondered whether I could bring my grandmother back to life if I bought back her regalia” (Alexie 6). The dead grandmother in this context stands for the lost culture, land, and identity by American Natives. Jackson is hopeful and optimistic that even though he cannot seem to find the way to recover what is lost and redeem Native Indians, somehow they will ultimately overcome the entrenched marginalization and gain all that has been lost.
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At the end, when Jackson regains the possession of his grandmother’s regalia he breaks into a dance celebrating such an illustrious achievement. He says, “Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmother’s regalia and breathed her in…Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing” (Alexie 21). The writer of this story is hopeful that the prolonged suffering of Native Indians in the US will end one day and the world will stand in awe as this group of individuals reclaims their status in society. Despite the probability of this dream not materializing in the coming centuries, the author can only remain optimistic and hold on to the hope of a miracle happening to the Native Indians. On the one hand, perhaps the pawnshop owners will one day act out of kindness and decide to restore the lost culture and land to the natives. On the other hand, maybe the Native Indians will rise and reclaim what is theirs. Regardless of the means used to get to the desired end, the author of this story is optimistic that his people will be restored.
This paper has explained the underlying message in the short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”. The protagonist in the narrative is penniless and homeless, like the majority of his fellow Native Indians in the US. His culture and land have been pawned, but he is optimistic that one day he would redeem what has been lost. Even without the needed money, in the end, Jackson redeems his grandmother’s regalia, which is symbolic of the coming redemption of Native Americans from the institutionalized marginalization.
Alexie, Sherman. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The New Yorker, 2003, Web.
Banner, Stuart. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. Harvard University Press, 2007.
Daragmeh, A. K. Tawfiq. “Messy Muddles: Capitalist and Non-Capitalist Encounters in Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem”.” International Journal of Language and Literature, vol. 6, no. 2, 2018, pp. 103-111.