21 May 2018
A Yellow Bead to One’s Identity
In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” author Sherman Alexie describes a character, Jackson Jackson, who embarks on a journey to reclaim his grandmother’s stolen powwow regalia. Being far from home and without family, Jackson’s quest for the regalia is actually a quest to reshape his personal identity within a renewed sense of his culture’s identity. But, in doing so Jackson must find the yellow bead hidden in the regalia. The regalia and the yellow bead will shape Jackson and lead him on a journey to find his personal identity and understand his culture’s identity that is linked to his past and present life.
To understand Jackson, more we must go through his past (history) to get an understanding of what he is trying to look for. Jackson Jackson a Spokane Indian from Spokane, Washington moved to Seattle, Washington for school. Jackson ended up dropping out of school, ended up working various jobs, was married about three times, and fathered three children. Everything was practically over from him, he did not know who he was; became lost. Jackson states, “Piece by piece, I disappeared. I’ve been disappearing ever since” (Sherman Alexie pdf). Now, Jackson has been homeless for almost six years. When people see homeless people, they do not seem to care who they are. His identity was disappearing slowly, and he was drifting away because he knew that something was missing; he was incomplete, and he needed to find out what that was.
Although, Jackson Jackson was homeless for six years, he believed that it was a good thing. He says, “Being homeless is probably the only thing I’ve ever been good at” (Alexie pdf). Jackson does not believe he has done any good because of the way his life had turned out. He is putting himself under, thinking that he is no good for himself or anyone. He feels worthless, not being able to accomplish anything. Jackson had many responsibilities, now that he is homeless, he just has to worry about himself and how to survive in the world.
Henceforth, Jackson’s life will soon change by seeing a pawn shop and a regalia that meant importance to him. In other words, Jackson walks on the streets of Seattle just gazing and spots a pawn shop. He sees this regalia reminding him of his grandmother. A regalia is a distinct clothing that Native Indians wore for formal occasions. When seeing the regalia, he knew it was his grandmother’s. It’s like the pawn shop was calling him to get the regalia. At this moment Jackson’s life will being to shift and we will soon realize what Jackson was missing.
Without hesitation, Jackson walks into the pawn shop and tells the owner that it was his grandmother’s regalia. When reading the story, you can hear the tone Jackson talks in, as if he is confident that it is his grandmother’s regalia only seeing it in a picture. He just knew, it was a bond between him and the regalia. The owner wants proof. Jackson tells the owner, there is a yellow bead hidden. The owner then tells Jackson he will give it to him for nine hundred ninety-nine dollars. That is a lot of cash. Jackson gives him five dollars and tells the owner, he will come back for the rest.
The regalia has two significances, it represents Jackson’s personal identity (the yellow bead) and his culture’s identity (the regalia). What does the yellow bead signify? It signifies Jackson. The bead was hidden from the other beads, making the regalia imperfect. Alexie states, “Indian people saw flaws into their powwow regalia” because “They don’t want to be perfect” (“What You Pawn I Will Redeem” 517). The yellow bead is Jackson and he must learn that being imperfect is okay because no one is perfect. He must find his personal identity and culture within the yellow bead and the regalia. Without the yellow bead, there isn’t a regalia. They come as a whole instead of pieces.
Alexie Sherman uses the bead as a metaphor for Jackson Jackson’s own imperfection in his life; his shortfalls of not being connected to his heritage. Jackson finds that the regalia is an inspiration from his grandmother and the ancestors. Jackson getting the regalia will make him have a bond again with the Native culture again. It gives him energy that he had not known before. Meaning he had not fought for anything in his life for a long time that has meaning. He realizes that he is on a quest to win it back on his own. By winning the regalia, it would make his grandmother and ancestors proud.
The regalia as a whole represents the Indians. The regalia was stolen from them by the whites. Just like how the reservation was taken from the Native Indians. Alexie begins his story with “One day you have a home and the next you don’t” (Alexie 519). This sentence explicitly exposes the state of homelessness that Jackson lives, as well as it implicitly exposes the cultural aspect of homelessness the Native Indians lived as they were linked to an unfortunate event that happened in their life.
Nonetheless, the pawn shop owner had put a price on the regalia. Something so beautiful stolen part, worth so much and it had not belonged to him. Back then people had taken things from the reservation that had not belonged to them. They just took it as if it was their own. They just saw it, thought it was beautiful, picked it up and put it in a museum. The artifacts were meant to be left alone. “Whites to claim Native American ancestry for the sole purpose of acquiring land that had been allotted to the Spokane tribe” (Alexie 521). The land was not theirs. The whites had no business from taking objects from the Spokane tribe and put them as a trophy in cases.
Furthermore, Jackson Jackson decides to go on journey knowing that he must regain the regalia and have it in his hands in twenty-four hours with nine hundred ninety-nine dollars. Throughout his journey Jackson had some bumps and curves. His friend Rose of Sharron an Indian, also homeless went back to Organ to her family and Junior his other friend was walking and died. What does this mean? It can represent Jackson in two ways. Either he can go home and be with his tribe again or he can stay where he is and see what happens to him later on in the future. Although, Jackson left the tribe, he can always go back home.
To continue, Jackson goes around looking for jobs to get the money. Stops by a newspaper stand, convenience store, a bar, and last stop the train station. Jackson ends up winning one hundred dollars from a lottery ticket and a police officer gives him money, but not that much. Even though Jackson was on a quest to find money to buy the regalia back, the money he had gotten he shared it with people. For example, gave Mary twenty dollars because had won the lottery and Mary denied it. Jackson states, “When you win, you’re supposed to share with your family” (Alexie pdf). Jackson had a family, but it was not like the community back home, but it was a start. Sharing for Jackson meant a lot because that is what they did in the community back home. Everyone shared with everyone. When giving the money to Mary it reminded him of home.
Towards the end, where Jackson’s quest is coming to a stop. He does not have enough money, but he goes back to the pawn shop. Jackson went back to where he had seen the pawn shop, but it was nowhere to be found. He had walked for blocks and blocks to find the pawn shop. I believe the pawn shop was his guide and passageway to fight for what he wanted it. The pawn shop was there, but it was not there. I know it can’t just magically pick up itself, but the pawn shop was the first start of Jackson’s journey and it was also where he ended his journey.
At the end of the story, Jackson states, “I took my grandmother’s regalia and walked outside. I knew that solitary yellow bead was part of me…. “The city stopped. They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing” (Alexie pdf). I believe that Alexie is trying to say that the Native Indians had taken back what had belonged to them back. They kept searching and looking, not giving up on themselves or the community. That was Jackson, being homeless, a drunk, and losing almost everything he had, he was able to get the regalia back. The yellow bead was not hidden anymore.
To conclude, Jackson’s void was filled and had completely redeem giving him a sense of belonging by wrapping himself in the regalia. Jackson was lost for a long time since he left Spokane. He had lost his family and community. Having the regalia in his arm made him feel whole, making him part of the culture. Although, the yellow bead was hidden and imperfect from the other beads Jackson realized that it is okay for him to be imperfect and that he is a proud Native Indian.
Sherman, Alexie, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” Literary themes for Students: Race and Prejudice, edited by Hacht Anne, vol. 2, Gale 2006, pp. 515-525.
Sherman, Alexie, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” April 21, 2003, pdf.