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Ahmad Abdullhadi Shalabi

World Literature

December 10th, 2013

The Quest for Identity in Sherman Alexies What You Pawn I Will Redeem

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, was born in 1966 on the Spokane

Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. [He] is a poet, writer, and filmmaker. Much of

his writing draws on his experiences as a Native American growing up on the Spokane Indian

Reservation ( Konigsberg). As a Native American, Alexies main concern is presenting his

own culture and traditions not only to the American society but also to the whole world.

Therefore, most of his works focus on the life of Native Americans in the Indian

Reservations where those people suffer from cultural denial and lost heritage and land.

In spite of the bitterness and the sense of loss that his characters suffer, Alexie tends

to use humor in presenting his plot and characters. His writings are meant to evoke sadness,

but at the same time he uses humor and pop culture that leaves the readers with a sense of

respect, understanding and compassion. Alexies influences for his literary works do not rely

solely on traditional Indian forms, but instead he blends elements of culture, Indian

spirituality, and the drudgery of poverty-ridden reservation life to create his characters and

the world they inhabit.

This paper sheds light on Alexies tendency of presenting Native Americans as

denied and marginalized people in their own homeland. It also examines Alexies What You

Pawn I Will Redeem as a quest for self journey where the protagonist does his best to

reclaim his culture, traditions and identity.

The story is told through the character of Jackson Jackson. He is a homeless

alcoholic of Spokane Indian descent who finds his grandmothers regalia at a pawn shop. He

sets out on a quest to raise $1000 and gain back this family heirloom. The story focuses on

the obstacles Jackson faces and the humor he uses to get through his difficult position.

Through his journey Jackson comes across many people who help him achieve his goal.

When the whites arrived in America, they isolated those native people by putting

them in reservations, believing that they were just primitive horse-riding Indians.

Unemployment, alcoholism and homelessness are the Native Americans three major

dilemmas they face in the reservations. Their land was occupied by the whites and their

culture started to vanish due to the whites agenda to assimilate those Indians into their

society and culture. The assimilation of Native Americans was the first step towards

acculturation. The whites believed that if those Indians assimilate with them they will leave

their culture behind and adopt the new one. Rachel Buff , an associate professor of history

at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, differentiates between the two terms saying "It is

important here to distinguish between assimilation, which denotes the gradual melting of

different cultural groups into Americans, and acculturation, which signals the ongoing

process of cultural adaptation and change"( Buff 26). Gradually, Native Americans were

fused to the new arrivals culture.

For the sake of demolishing Native American culture and language, the whites

founded boarding schools for the Indians as Buff points out Colonel Richard H. Pratt had

founded a boarding school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1879 with the motto Kill the Indian

and civilize the man( Buff 26). The motto shows how Native Americans were seen via the

whites eye. Richard makes a clear connection between savageness and Native Americans; he

might have referred to not killing them literally but killing their culture and beliefs which

might affect the whites ideologies.

From the very beginning of the conflict on land, the whites knew how to

marginalize the Native Americans; first, by isolating them in reservations and second , by

injecting their minds with the new culture and identity. The reservations, in the mean time,

also contain so many social and economical problems. They are full of homeless, jobless and

alcoholic people.

Alexie shoulders the responsibility of reviving the Native American culture and

identity via his pen. This is evident in the story as Jackson feels that it is his duty to reclaim

his grandmothers regalia although he knows very well that it is almost impossible. Jackson

represents all Native Americans who lost their culture and felt the sore of being alienated in

their own homeland. Alexie tries to depict the circumstances a Native American faces in a

place that is plagued with cultural denial, homelessness and other social and political matters.

The title What You Pawn I Will Redeem suggests a kind of dialogue between

the old and the new generations. It is the new generation who blames the old one for losing

the land and culture and confirms at the same time that they will reclaim them no matter what

it costs. The new generation is embodied in Jackson to show the will and determination to get

back the lost heritage. Although he is miserable, alcoholic and homeless, he focuses on his

goal. However, Jacksons condition is not his own choice, but it is what the society imposed

upon his as many other Native Americans. Alexie begins his story with One day you have a

home and the next you dont (Alexie 1). This sentence explicitly exposes the state of

homelessness that Jackson lives, as well as it implicitly exposes the cultural aspect of

homelessness the Native Americans live as they are linked to an unfortunate past of cultural

denial and stolen land property.

Jackson Jackson states that he is only good at being homeless as he says Being

homeless is probably the only thing Ive ever been good at (Alexie1). He is not only

homeless because he doesnt have home or a shelter but also due to the fact that he is

alienated while living in his own homeland.

When Jackson introduces his Indian friend in the story, he says that his friend

refuses to specify his tribe and says Do any of us know exactly what we are? (Alexie 2). In

this instance, Alexie questions the identity of those Native Americans and shows the effects

of assimilation and acculturation. Native Americans are no longer able to specify who they

are and to what tribe they belong. They only consider themselves as Plains Indian" he

[Jacksons friend] identifies himself as Plains Indian, a generic term, and not by a specific

tribe" (Alexie 1-2). This kind of generalization shows the terrible effects of assimilation that

make Native Americans gradually forgetting their origins. It starts with considering

themselves as Indians belonging to no specific tribe and ends with considering themselves as

Americans with different color. Then Jackson provokes sarcastically the idea of having a

house as he adds You have to get a home to be that homely (Alexie2). This actually reflects

Alexies sense of humor that he uses in his writings to deliver his message. Humor in

Alexies writings reflects his creativity in presenting a sensitive issue. He puts between the

readers hands a text that is full of comedy which bears between its lines a tragic story.

To confirm the effects of the colonizer on the colonized Jackson, says as he

compares himself to his friend . . . hes the Before Columbus Arrived Indian and Im the

After Columbus Arrived Indian. I am living a proof of the horrible damage that colonialism

has done to our Skins (Alexie 2). Alexie refers to Jackson miserable condition as the

condition of all Indians after the arrival of the colonizer. Jackson is poor, homeless and

alcoholic as most of the Native Americans who live in the light of colonization.

Alexie emphasizes that Indians land and culture are lost because of their built in

liability to be subdivided and give up their homeland. When Jackson walks past the

pawnshop he is surprised for not noticing the pawnshop as he says . . . we walked past this

pawnshop Id never noticed before. And that was strange, because we Indians have built-in

pawnshop radar ( Alexie 2). Alexie might be pointing to the literal pawnshop radar due to

the fact that Native Americans are poor, therefore, they always look for pawnshops to sell

their stuffs to have money, or he metaphorically says that Indians have the sense of giving up

their belongings by nature, it is something that is built in their souls as they gave up their land

and culture.

Jacksons journey starts when he walks past a pawnshop and notices an old

powwow-dance regalia hanging in the window (Alexie 2). He automatically feels that it is

his grandmothers regalia and it is his duty to reclaim it. The regalia symbolizes Native

Americans lost heritage and identity. Jackson feels immediately that he must get it back

although he is not really sure that it belongs to his grandmother, but his intuition reassures

him that it is his grandmothers. When Junior asks him if he is sure that it is his

grandmothers regalia Jackson replies:

I didnt know for sure, because I hadnt seen that regalia in person ever. Id only

seen photographs of my grandmother dancing in it. As those were taken before

somebody stole it from her, fifty years ago. But it sure looked like my memory of it

and it had all the same color feathers and beads that my family sewed into our

powwow regalia (Alexie 2 )

This quotation implies, as the regalia symbolizes the lost Indian identity, that Native

Americans identity was stolen by the colonizer. As Jackson is not really sure that the regalia

belongs to his grandmother, Native Americans also suffer from the blur image of their true

culture and identity.

Jackson enters the pawnshop with only five dollars and asks the pawnbroker to

give him the regalia, but the pawnbroker refuses because he paid a thousand dollars for it.

The pawnbroker tells Jackson that he will give him the regalia if Jackson pays him nine

hundred ninety nine dollars within twenty four hours. Jackson accepts the deal and starts

his journey collecting the money.

Through the journey, Jackson deals with different white people who help him in

collecting the money. This actually makes us wonder; why does Alexie present the whites

as helpful and kind people? While they are the colonizers who wiped out Native

Americans identity and culture. In presenting the whites as kind and helpful , Alexie , I

believe, tends to say that time has changed and we as Native Americans can get use of

these people who want to help us. He might also hint that Native Americans need a hand

to revive their culture and heritage and this hand could be the whites. Nevertheless, he

wants also Native Americans to maintain their identity even if they live as one family with

the whites.

Jackson recalls his grandmother and tells the reader that she died because of breast

cancer. He explains maybe the cancer started in her broken heart and then leaked out into

her breasts (Alexie 6). Taking into consideration that the grandmother symbolizes the old

culture and traditions, Alexie wants to say that cancer or the whites leaked into

grandmothers heart or the Indian culture and caused her or its death. He adds I know its
crazy, but I wondered whether I could bring my grandmother back if I bought her regalia

( Alexie 6). It is clear here that by getting back his identity he will revive his culture.

Jackson is determined to get the regalia back by himself Its a quest now. I need to win it

back myself (Alexie 7). He refuses to call the police or ask anybody to help him getting

the regalia back. This actually reflects Alexies intention of informing the reader that

Native Americans can rely on themselves.

Alexie also sheds light on the problem of alcoholism among Native Americans as

it makes them astray between a dark gloomy history and an unknown future within the

whites hands. Jackson, like many Native Americans, is alcoholic who keeps drinking

throughout the story. He confesses the impact of alcohol on him An an alcoholic Indian

with a busted stomach, I always hope I can keep enough food in me to stay alive


Jackson remembers his grandmother and the stories she used to tell him about. He

mentions that his grandmother was a nurse at the military hospital in Sydney, Australia.

One of her stories was the story of a wounded soldier who lost his leg in the battlefield.

Alexie here knocks on the door of existentialism as the soldier talks about how colored

people fight so that white people will remain free How we brown people are killing other

brown people so white people will remain free. (Alexie 9) he also questions his ability of

making decisions and choices Well, sometimes I think of it that way. And other times I

think of it the way they wanted me to think of it. I get confused. (Alexie 9) this statement

shows that the Indians were silenced and were only good at following the orders of white


The commitment to the Indian identity is clear in the story as Jackson keeps

reminding the reader of the Indian traditions, this is evident when Jackson offers the

Korean girl Mary to take an amount of money after winning a lottery ticket No, its tribal.

It is an Indian thing. When you win, youre supposed to share with your family(Alexie

11). This also implies the sense of loss that Jackson has. He considers everyone as a part

of his family. Another instance that proves Jacksons quest for his identity and his solid

bond with his own culture is his dialogue with Officer Williams about his grandmother

and how he feels after her death:

Its my grandmother, I said. She died.

I am sorry man. When did she die ?

Nineteen seventy-two.

And youre killing yourself now?

Ive been killing myself ever she died. (Alexie 18).

Jackson presents the case of all Native Americans who suffer from the consequences of

giving up their lands in the past and live a bitter present with cultural and moral denial.

Jackson starts his journey with only five dollars and ends it with the same amount.

In spite the fact that he is fully aware that the pawnbroker will not give him the regalia

without the money, he goes there and asks for it. For his surprise, the man gives him the

regalia for the five dollars and tells him that his determination to get it back is more

important than the money.

After the stressful moments and harsh journey, Jackson takes the regalia and says,

I took my grandmothers regalia and walked outside. I knew that solitary yellow bead

was part of me. I knew I was that yellow bead in part ( Alexie 26 ). The regalia represents

Native Americans lost identity that they look for in a multicultural society where they are

marginalized, depressed and denied. The whole world stopped to see the original identity

of Jackson who lives a moment of relief Outside, I wrapped myself in my grandmothers

regalia and breathed her in. I stepped off the sidewalk and into the intersection.

Pedestrians stopped. Cars stopped. The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my

grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing ( Alexie 26 ).

To conclude, Alexie spares no effort in reviving his own identity and culture in the

story according to the evidence mentioned above. He created a protagonist who represents

the condition of the Native Americans, who shares the same qualities and values of those

who live in the reservations and who determines to fight till the end to prove to the world

that Native Americans do really exist.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. What You Pawn I Will Redeem.P,2003 . Print

Buff, Rachel. Immigration and the Political Economy of Home: West Indian Brooklyn and
American Indian Minneapolis, 19451992. University California Press
P,2001. Print.

Konigsberg , Eric "In His Own Literary World, a Native Son Without Borders", The New York
Times, October 20, 2009. Web. 2013-12-03.