A Regalia and a Perishing Culture in What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 1355 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: Jun 9, 2021

Words: 1355|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: Jun 9, 2021

Table of contents

  1. Background and Context
  2. The Importance of Cultural Property
  3. Symbolism and Cultural Loss
  4. The Arduous Journey and Obstacles
  5. The Redemption of Cultural Heritage
  6. Encounters with White People
  7. Counterarguments and Alternative Interpretations
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Sherman Alexie, a prolific Native American writer, has captured the essence of cultural heritage and identity in his short story, "What you pawn I will redeem." This tale tells the story of Jackson Jackson, a homeless Spokane Indian man, who embarks on a remarkable journey to retrieve his grandmother's regalia. Through the lens of this narrative, Alexie explores the profound importance of cultural property to Native Americans, shedding light on the struggles, symbolism, and encounters with white individuals that shape Jackson's quest. This essay delves into the themes of cultural heritage, symbolism, and the impact of stereotypes while providing a comprehensive analysis of Alexie's narrative.

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Background and Context

Sherman Alexie, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state, is celebrated for his contribution to Native American literature. His works often tackle the complex issues faced by indigenous communities, including cultural preservation and identity. "What you pawn I will redeem," published in The New Yorker in 2003, is a poignant example of Alexie's storytelling prowess. The story introduces readers to Jackson Jackson, a homeless man who stumbles upon his grandmother's stolen regalia in a pawnshop.

The Importance of Cultural Property

At the heart of the story lies the concept of cultural property and its significance to Native American communities. For Jackson, his grandmother's regalia serves as a tangible connection to his cultural heritage, a sacred symbol of his people's traditions and history. When Jackson recognizes the regalia with certainty, he reveals that "there will be one yellow bead hidden somewhere on it," showcasing the deep emotional and cultural ties associated with this artifact. This immediate recognition underscores the profound importance of cultural property to the individual Native American and, by extension, to humanity as a whole.

In many indigenous cultures, regalia represents more than just clothing; it embodies generations of tradition, spirituality, and identity. Each piece of regalia is carefully crafted and holds a specific meaning within the community. It becomes a vessel through which individuals connect with their ancestors and preserve their cultural heritage.

Symbolism and Cultural Loss

Jackson's quest to retrieve the stolen regalia becomes a metaphorical journey representing the tragic history of Native American tribes forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. His determination to recover the regalia mirrors the longing of indigenous communities to regain their lost heritage. The regalia, in this context, becomes a symbol not only of personal loss but also of the broader historical and cultural displacement experienced by Native Americans.

Furthermore, the symbolism extends to the twenty-dollar bill given to Jackson by the pawnbroker. President Andrew Jackson's portrait on the bill serves as a stark reminder of the man who signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which led to the forced removal of countless indigenous people from their lands. The story thus highlights the historical injustices faced by Native Americans at the hands of white settlers.

The Arduous Journey and Obstacles

Jackson's journey to retrieve the regalia is fraught with obstacles, reflecting the struggles faced by indigenous communities in preserving their culture. Despite being offered assistance by others, including the police, Jackson resolutely refuses. His insistence on reclaiming the regalia on his terms underscores the importance of self-determination in cultural preservation. However, Jackson's own battles with alcoholism, a stereotype prevalent in Native American communities, hinder his progress, highlighting the complex challenges faced by individuals trying to reconnect with their heritage.

The Redemption of Cultural Heritage

The climactic moment of the story occurs when Jackson finally regains his grandmother's regalia and dances in it amid a frozen city. This moment symbolizes the redemption of his cultural heritage, even if only for a fleeting instant. As Jackson wraps himself in the regalia and dances, he metaphorically becomes one with his grandmother, embodying the spirit of his people and their traditions. This dance serves as a powerful testament to the importance of cultural preservation and the profound impact it can have on an individual's sense of identity and belonging.

Encounters with White People

Throughout the story, Jackson has various encounters with white individuals, challenging stereotypes and preconceived notions. Alexie subtly portrays the complexity of relationships between Native Americans and white settlers. Not all white characters are portrayed as villains, and some, like the pawnbroker, show empathy and understanding. These interactions serve as a reminder that people should not be judged solely based on their ethnicity, emphasizing the need for mutual respect and understanding between cultures.

Counterarguments and Alternative Interpretations

While "What you pawn I will redeem" highlights the importance of cultural heritage and identity, it is essential to consider alternative interpretations. Some may argue that Jackson's reliance on alcohol contributes to his homelessness and complicates his quest for the regalia. However, the story also demonstrates Jackson's determination and the personal significance of his journey. These counterarguments underline the complexity of the issues raised in the narrative.

In addressing these counterarguments, it becomes evident that Jackson's alcoholism is not a personal failing but a symptom of larger systemic issues faced by many Native Americans. Historical trauma, dispossession, and discrimination have contributed to the prevalence of alcoholism within indigenous communities. Jackson's story serves as a reflection of these broader challenges, emphasizing the need for comprehensive support systems and cultural preservation efforts.


In "What you pawn I will redeem," Sherman Alexie masterfully weaves a narrative that explores the cultural significance of regalia to Native Americans, the symbolism of cultural loss, and the impact of stereotypes. Jackson's journey to recover his grandmother's stolen regalia becomes a symbol of resilience and cultural preservation, highlighting the enduring importance of heritage. The encounters with white individuals in the story challenge preconceived notions and promote understanding. Ultimately, Alexie's story serves as a poignant reminder of the need to respect and preserve the cultural identities of indigenous communities, making it a valuable contribution to Native American literature and the broader dialogue on cultural heritage.

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In a world where cultures often face assimilation and erasure, "What you pawn I will redeem" stands as a testament to the resilience of Native American communities and their unwavering commitment to preserving their traditions. It serves as a call to action, urging society to recognize the cultural treasures held within these communities and to respect their right to self-determination. Through the power of storytelling, Sherman Alexie has illuminated the enduring spirit of indigenous peoples, reminding us all of the cultural wealth that enriches our collective human experience.


  1. Alexie, S. (2003). What you pawn I will redeem. The New Yorker, 79(19), 82-89.
  2. Deloria, V. (1998). Playing Indian. Yale University Press.
  3. King, T. (2003). The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. House of Anansi Press.
  4. Echo-Hawk, W. (2010). In the Light of Justice: The Rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Beacon Press.
  5. Fixico, D. L. (2008). The American Indian mind in a linear world: American Indian studies and traditional knowledge. Routledge.
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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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A Regalia And A Perishing Culture In What You Pawn I Will Redeem By Sherman Alexie. (2021, Jun 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 13, 2024, from
“A Regalia And A Perishing Culture In What You Pawn I Will Redeem By Sherman Alexie.” GradesFixer, 09 Jun. 2021,
A Regalia And A Perishing Culture In What You Pawn I Will Redeem By Sherman Alexie. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Apr. 2024].
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