What You Pawn I Will Redeem

by Sherman Alexie

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Who is Jackson in "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" and what does his quest symbolize?

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In the short story, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem", Sherman Alexie tells the story of an Indian boy named Jackson who is trying to get his grandmother's stolen regalia back from a pawn shop. He goes on a journey to find the money for it and learns a few things about life and himself.

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Jackson Jackson, the main character in Sherman Alexie's “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” is a homeless Native American—a self-proclaimed “Spokane Indian boy” who lives in Seattle. When Jackson happens upon his grandmother’s stolen powwow regalia in a pawn shop, he embarks on a quest to come up with $999 dollars to buy it back in the next twenty-four hours.

Throughout the story, Jackson repeatedly remarks on the hardships faced by Native Americans, referring to himself as “living proof of the horrible damage that Colonialism has done to us Skins.” From this perspective, we can understand the stolen regalia as representative of both material and cultural appropriation; Jackson’s attempt to regain it is an attempt to recover a cultural identity. We see this evidenced over the course of the 24 hours, such as when he sings “Indian songs” and ultimately dances with his grandmother.

To understand the symbolism of the quest, it is important to pay attention to the language that Alexie uses to describe it. Jackson repeatedly refers to it as a quest and later expands on the metaphor during his encounter with the police officer:

 “I’m on a mission here. I want to be a hero, you know? I want to win it back, like a knight.”

“That’s romantic crap.”

“That may be. But I care about it. It’s been a long time since I really cared about something.”

Jackson’s language—and the officer’s response to it—draws parallels to the romantic tradition of quest narratives such as Le Morte D’Arthur. Jackson realizes that if he is to recover the regalia—and the culture that it represents—he will have to do so through the western quest narrative. His quest is not simply about regaining a lost culture; it is about recognizing that this culture has been irreversibly changed by a history of colonialism and appropriation.

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Jackson Jackson is the main character and the first-person narrator of Sherman Alexie's short story "What You Pawn I will Redeem." He is a homeless Native American man from the Spokane tribe, living in the streets of Seattle. Jackson describes himself in various ways throughout the story, telling us that after getting married and having a family he goes "crazy," and that he may or may not have been diagnosed with asocial disorder. He also tells us that he has learned to be "an effective homeless man." We see this through the ways he has learned to survive in the city.

Jackson's quest to earn back his grandmother's regalia could symbolize a few different things. Perhaps most importantly, this quest symbolizes Jackson's deeply rooted desire for family, community, and a sense of belonging.

We know this because Jackson touches on these themes several times throughout the story. Everyone in the city seems to know him, including a police officer, a Korean grocery store employee, and a handful of other homeless Native American individuals named Junior and Rose of Sharon. Jackson treats all of these people with kindness and cheerful familiarity. He refers to Junior and Rose of Sharon as his "regular crew, his "teammates," "defenders," and "posse." He writes, "We matter to each other if we don’t matter to anybody else." 

Jackson also continually gives away the money he earns throughout the story. He buys his friends breakfast and buys drinks for everyone at a local bar. This generosity and his enthusiasm for his friends tell us that he values friendship and community above all else.

Jackson's grandmother's regalia reminds him of his past, when he truly belonged to a community and had a family. His grandmother died years ago, and he misses her terribly now. Thus, Jackson seems to think that if he can just earn back the regalia, he might also earn back this sense of belonging and his past. 

Because Jackson is homeless and Native American, he is often marginalized and treated as being invisible and powerless. Thus, Jackson's quest to find the regalia, an important cultural artifact from his family, also symbolizes a way in which he can reclaim some power.

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