How does Sherman Alexie complicate stereotypical notions about American Indians in "What You Pawn I Will Redeem"?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Sherman Alexie writes about the Native American in the Western part of the United States.  In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the protagonist Jackson Jackson uses his anguish of being an Indian in a white-dominated culture to support his inability to complete whatever he starts.  Something in his makeup does not allow him to connect with reality. 

Jackson is an atypical hero.  He has a good heart and wants to do better in life, but fails miserably most of the time. Nothing really gets through his alcoholic anesthesia except seeing his grandmother’s regalia in a pawn shop that he remembers from his childhood.  His overwhelming desire to buy it back haunts the rest of the story. 

But Jackson’s alcoholism stops him in every direction that he turns. He is also deeply depressed about his life and failures since he:

  • Left his marriages
  • Fathered two or three children (does not know for sure)
  • Dropped out of college
  • Quit or was fired from several jobs

His mission now is to get the money to buy back his grandmother’s dancing dress. It will cost him one thousand dollars. Yet, every time he gets some money he gives it away or spends it foolishly. He does not show the desperation that a person might have when he has an important goal.   

His grandparents' deaths impacted him intensely.  He also plays the Indian card whenever he can. He hangs out with other alcoholic failures and imagines that they are a family.  Yet, each one of them deserts him.  His longing extends to wanting to make real connections to his people and tribal traditions.

Jackson states: It’s the way I look at the world, with humor, and it’s not necessarily on purpose.  My family is very funny. … In the Northwest especially, the joke is that if you have a gathering of Native Americans from all over the country, you know where the Northwest Indians are because they’re the loud laughing ones.

Through his narration, Jackson demonstrates his innate intelligence and wit.  He has earned his way by begging on the streets which he calls negotiating.  His humor references his dark side.  He is sick with diabetes; he vomits on the street; and he often goes to the detox which is filled with other “drunken Indians.”

Jackson uses his humor to keep from self-examining.  His humor has many flavors: cheerful, serious, sarcastic, frustrated, and even hurtful.  The story’s fragmented sections are similarly reflective of Jackson’s personality and life. 

The Indian of the Northwest has been urbanized according to Jackson.  He believes that the Indian has become an alcoholic because he has been domesticated by the white people.  His grandmother served as a nurse in World War II.  Jackson wants to blame history for his problems, and yet, his grandparents did not follow in the footsteps of the wooden Indian who drinks to “kill the pain.”

This story is not about the poor, stereotypical Indians.  It is about a man who happens to be Indian using his ethnicity to cover his misuse of his talents and life.  The evil white man does not exist for Jackson.  Many of the people who help him are white, including the policeman, the Big Boss, and the pawnbroker who gives him the regalia. 

The dance at the end of the story symbolizes a new start for Jackson Jackson. The reader can only hope that he is able to change his life.

Sources:

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