A Quest for Culture

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Throughout their lives, people take many journeys. These journeys, both literal and figurative, physical and spiritual, can be temporary or last a lifetime. In literature as in life, characters also take similar journeys. These literary journeys will usually both provide the basis to a story’s plot as well as lead a character to a clearer sense of self-knowledge. In Sherman Alexie’s short story “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” the main character, Jackson Jackson, is an example of a literary character on a journey of self-knowledge. On the surface, the story is about a homeless Spokane Indian man living on the streets of Seattle, WA, trying to earn nearly one thousand dollars to buy back his grandmother’s powwow regalia after finding it hanging in a pawnshop window. However, upon closer inspection, the reader can see that through the process of trying to acquire the money, Jackson’s journey is not just about buying back a stolen heirloom, but is instead about rediscovering his ancestral roots and forming a long-broken connection with his Native American family. By buying back the pawned regalia, Jackson will come to redeem not only his grandmother’s death, but his own life as well.

The very first sentence of the story is a statement that holds a double meaning for Jackson. Jackson says, “One day you have a home and the next you don’t” (1). This sentence refers to both Jackson being literally homeless, living day-to-day on the streets of Seattle, as well as culturally homeless as a Spokane Indian. As a Native American, Jackson and his ancestors are tied to a past of discrimination, forced relocation, and stolen land and property. In his current life, Jackson has never been able to stay in one place for a significant amount of time in order to consider it “home;” he moves away from his Spokane tribe, flunks out of college, and divorces numerous times. The opening statement introduces a theme of homelessness, both literally and culturally, to the reader that remains prevalent throughout the entire story.

To many people, ‘home’ is associated with ‘family.’ When it comes to Jackson, his lack of a stable home is linked to a broken relationship with his family. While Jackson may not be in contact with his biological family, as he goes about his quest to buy back his grandmother’s regalia, he finds himself reconnecting with his cultural family and gaining back his Native American identity. Throughout the story, every time Jackson earns a little money, he shares it with those around him. After winning $100 on a lottery ticket, Jackson gives Mary, the cashier at the Korean grocery store, $20. When she tries to refuse the offer, Jackson states: “It’s tribal. It’s an Indian thing. When you win, you’re supposed to share with your family” (8). After leaving Mary, Jackson proceeds to go to the local bar with his remaining $80 and buys eighty shots for himself and all of his “cousins” (9). At this point, both the reader and other characters within the story begin to question Jackson’s seriousness about buying back the regalia. The people in Jackson’s life tend to place a high value on having money, whereas throughout the story, Jackson couldn’t seem to care less about if he had money or not. Jackson’s only concern is sharing his wealth and helping people who need help in the present, instead of saving for his own future. In this way, Jackson is forming a connection to his late grandmother. In the story it is revealed that, like Jackson, his grandmother also shared what she had, giving back to those around her as a nurse during World War II. As Jackson exhibits his grandmother’s traits, he develops a bond with her that hadn’t previously existed.

As the similarities between Jackson and his grandmother become more evident, it becomes clear that with the buying back of the regalia, Jackson is trying to redeem his grandmother’s death. When discussing his grandmother’s death, Jackson says, “I know it’s crazy, but I wondered whether I could...
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