Sherman Alexie’s story titled “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is narrated in the first person by its main character, a middle-aged American Indian named Jackson Jackson. Jackson, who was born in Spokane but now lives in Seattle, begins by reporting that he is homeless. He came to Seattle twenty-three years ago to attend college but quickly flunked out. He subsequently worked blue collar jobs, married a few times, fathered a few children, “and then went crazy.” He claims that he is non-violent but confesses that he has broken a few hearts over the years. He has a habit of leaving whatever relationships he forms.
Jackson claims that he has been homeless for six years but is “effective” as a homeless person. He knows how to get along, make friends, and find store employees who will let him use the employee bathrooms. Jackson addresses his readers as if he assumes they are white and have little concern for homeless Indians. Yet Jackson is equally skeptical of the attitudes of various Indians, who, he says, know how to make up stories. Jackson’s current friends, with whom he wanders the streets, are Rose of Sharon and Junior. The former is a small woman with a large personality; the latter is a good-looking Indian who makes Jackson “jealous, jealous, and jealous.” Jackson may not be as handsome as Junior, but he prides himself on knowing how to deal with whites.
At noon one day, Jackson and his two friends happen to pass a pawn shop. They see, hanging in the front window, some “powwow-dance regalia” that Jackson recognizes as having once belonged to his grandmother. He has seen photos of the outfit and is sure that this is the same one; he claims that it had been stolen. The three friends enter the shop and Jackson is soon able to prove to the shop owner (because of a hidden yellow bead) that the regalia had in fact once belonged to his grandmother. The shop owner says that he believes Jackson but also says that he paid a thousand dollars for the outfit and cannot simply give it to Jackson. Instead, he offers to sell the regalia for $999. Unfortunately, Jackson and his friends have only five dollars.
The pawnshop owner, sympathetic to Jackson’s plight, tells Jackson that if the latter can return within twenty-four hours with $999, he will sell the regalia to Jackson for that price. He even contributes $20 to the cause. Jackson and his friends then leave the store in search of the rest of the money.
At 1 p.m., the trio use their $25 to buy three bottles of alcohol, which they quickly consume in an alley. At 2 p.m., Jackson wakes up to discover that Rose of Sharon is gone. He hears later that she hitchhiked back to her family’s reservation. Junior, meanwhile, has passed out and is covered with his own vomit. Momentarily leaving him, Jackson walks toward the ocean. When he arrives at the wharf, he encounters three Aleut Indians from Alaska; all are cousins, and all are crying from homesickness. All have been hoping for years to find some way to get back to Alaska. They plan to sit and wait for their boat to come back. When Jackson asks them how long their boat has been gone, they tell him “eleven years.”
At 3 p.m., Jackson returns to Junior, who is still unconscious but still breathing. Jackson sits and thinks about his grandmother, Agnes, who died of breast cancer when he was a young teen. His mother and father explained her cancer in different...
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ways and Jackson wonders if the cancer might have begun after her regalia was stolen. He wonders if he might be able to "restore" her to life by recovering her regalia. Since he needs money, at 4 p.m. he walks to the offices of a non-profit agency designed to help the poor and homeless. He has memorized the agency’s bureaucratic mission statement and sometimes goes there to get newspapers to then sell on the streets.
The agency’s “Big Boss,” a kind man, cannot arrange for Jackson to acquire the hundreds of newspapers he would need to sell in order to make $999. Instead, the boss gives Jackson fifty papers to sell so that Jackson can fulfill his mission, which he now considers a kind of personal quest. Back at the wharf by 5 p.m., Jackson manages to sell only five papers, using the profit of $5 to order four cheeseburgers for a dollar each. He soon vomits up the food, partly because alcoholism has damaged his stomach. At 6 p.m., Jackson returns to Junior, who is still unconscious but alive. Jackson finds $1.50 concealed in Junior’s socks and shoes and takes the money. He now has $2.50.
Sitting next to Junior, Jackson reminisces about his grandmother, recalling a story she once told him about serving as a nurse during World War II. Stationed at a hospital in Australia, she befriended a Maori soldier who had lost both his legs. She and the soldier became friendly and discussed the war, ethnicity, and religion, joking and laughing. Meanwhile, Jackson – checking again to make sure that Junior is still living – at 7 p.m. heads to a nearby Korean grocery store he often visits. At the store, he buys a 50-cent cigar and two one dollar lottery tickets. If both tickets pay off, he will have the necessary $1000. In the store, he jokes with Mary, the young Korean who works at the cash register. He facetiously tells her that he loves her, and she teases him in return.
Scratching his two lottery tickets after smoking his cigar, Jackson discovers that he has won only another lottery ticket. Scratching the third ticket, he discovers that he has won $100. As Mary counts out his winnings, he insists that she keep $20, telling her that such sharing of winnings is an Indian custom. At 8 p.m., Jackson returns to Junior, but Junior is gone. Jackson later learns that Junior froze to death in an alley in Portland, Oregon. At 9 p.m., Jackson visits a downtown bar known to cater to an Indian clientele. Inside he finds fifteen Indians (eight men and seven women) and tells the fat white bartender to serve five shots of whiskey each to himself and his fifteen new friends, at a total cost of $80.
Jackson strikes up a conversation with two of the Indians, a woman named Irene Muse and a flamboyant bisexual man named Honey Boy. Both share Jackson’s sense of humor and Honey Boy seems attracted to Jackson, who says he is flattered while also informing Honey Boy that he doesn’t “play on [Honey Boy’s] team.” Jackson jokingly professes his love for Mary, the Korean cashier. Meanwhile, other Indians are also buying drinks for everyone in the bar. Honey Boy dances and sings and, as he does so, Jackson and Irene exchange an impassioned kiss. At 10 p.m., Jackson and Irene are in a stall in the women’s restroom, exploring each other’s bodies.
At midnight, “nearly blind with alcohol,” Jackson finds himself standing at the bar, calling for more drinks. The bartender tells him that no one, including Jackson, has any more money to buy drinks. Irene and Honey Boy have long since left the bar. At 2 a.m., the bartender announces that the bar is closing. Jackson is still mystified about the location of Irene and Honey Boy and, when he becomes angry with the bartender, the bartender threatens violence. The two begin to fight. At 4 a.m., Jackson finds himself walking behind a warehouse with his face in pain and his nose possibly broken. He grabs a plastic tarp from a truck and falls asleep on the ground.
At 6 a.m., Jackson is kicked in the ribs by a white policeman whom he soon recognizes as a good cop named Officer Williams. Williams informs Jackson that he has been sleeping on railroad tracks. After Jackson vomits, Williams scolds him for his stupidity. Jackson tells Williams about his dead grandmother and says he has been killing himself ever since she died, decades ago. Williams is sympathetic. He places Jackson inside his police car and begins driving toward a detoxification center, a place Jackson has no desire to visit again. During the drive, Williams expresses amazement that Jackson can still make jokes after everything he has been through. Jackson says that Jews and Indians are alike in this way.
As Jackson talks with Williams, sometimes seriously and sometimes not, he remembers his own grandfather, who had been a kind and caring police officer on their reservation. The grandfather had been shot and killed by his own brother; the grandfather had tried to prevent his brother from harming the brother’s girlfriend during a drunken brawl. The brother was imprisoned and could never understand the charges.
When Williams and Jackson arrive at the detox center, Jackson begs that he not be forced to go in. He tells Williams that if he is kept there for the required twenty-four hours, he will miss his planned return to the pawnshop. He tells Williams about his mission to buy back his grandmother’s regalia. He refuses to let Williams help him legally repossess the stolen regalia, explaining that the owner of the pawnshop had no idea the regalia had been stolen. Jackson explains that he wants to be a hero, a kind of knight, by winning back the regalia on his own. This quest, he explains, has finally given him a chance again to really care about something. Williams offers him all the money he has on his person: $30. The cop adds that he shares Jackson’s values. With the $30 in hand, Jackson heads back toward the wharf.
At the wharf, at 8 a.m., Jackson finds the three Aleuts, waiting in the same place as before. Jackson sits with them for a while and asks them to sing sentimental tribal songs about grandmothers. The Aleuts sing “strange and beautiful” songs about grandmothers and lonesomeness. At 11 a.m., Jackson takes the hungry Aleuts to a local diner for breakfast. He treats them with the $30 Williams had given him, making sure to leave a tip for the friendly waitress. The four men then feast.
At noon, Jackson bids goodbye to the Aleuts, whom he never sees again. He searches for the pawnshop, unable to find it, but he eventually locates it, as if by magic, where it hadn’t seemed to be just a few minutes earlier. The owner of the pawnshop greets him. Jackson confesses that he does not have the $999 necessary to purchase his grandmother’s regalia. He has only five dollars, but not the same five dollars he had the day before. The pawnbroker asks if Jackson has worked hard for the money. Jackson says that he has. The pawnbroker thinks for a moment, then gives Jackson the regalia, charging him nothing. Jackson says that he had wanted to win the regalia. The pawnbroker tells him that he has, and also tells him to leave before the pawnbroker changes his mind. Jackson asks the reader a question and then immediately answers it: “Do you know how many good men live in this world? Too many to count!”
Outside, he walks into the middle of the street, wraps himself in his grandmother’s regalia, and begins dancing: “Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.”