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Nowadays, when life becomes more and more hectic each day, many people focus only on their own problems. It is much easier to ignore so-called social outcasts rather than try to understand them and help. It is not complicated to be judgmental and just point a finger at such individual who does not fit into our society or our moral standards. A bright example of the issue related to social outcasts is a story What You Pawn I Will Redeem by Sherman Alexie. The author has very successfully demonstrated the other side of life. It is a side that not many people are interested to see or to know about. The story evokes contradictory feelings: on the one hand, a reader sympathizes with the main character; on the other hand, his behavior is despicable because of his alcoholism. At the same time, his self-destructive behavior can be understood and justified to a certain extent. Thus, the main protagonist is used as an allegory to raise the problem of American Indians in the modern days and to show the issue of poverty and alcoholism that is common among them.
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The work under consideration What You Pawn I Will Redeem was first published in the April 2003 issue of The New Yorker magazine. It is a story of a homeless Spokane Indian man that is faced with a challenge of finding nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars in twenty-four hours in order to reclaim from a pawnshop his grandmothers powwow regalia stolen fifty years ago. The main character, Jackson Jackson, enters a journey that becomes a challenge aimed at not only finding his grandmothers regalia but also at finding his own identity. The events happen in Seattle over the course of one day, and they revolve solely around the main character. As the story develops, Jackson Jackson meets friends and strangers that help him to reveal his personality and character.
The author presents the protagonist as an antisocial character who avoids the mainstream society by choosing to abandon employment, home, and family in exchange for self-distractive alcoholism. It is an allegory that reflects the problem of the Indian majority. Similarly to Jackson Jackson, the Native Americans are known for their ability to tell stories and their love for independent and free life. The interactions of the protagonist with other characters also demonstrate such qualities and downplay the negative sides of his personality. He belongs to such kind of people, who despite personal needs or goals, would eagerly give all their money to buy some drinks for friends and strangers.
Coming from an American Indian family, Sherman Alexie identifies himself with the main character of the story. As well as his protagonist, the writer struggled with alcohol abuse while he was studying at Spokanes Gonzaga University for two years (Kuiper, 2016). That is why the author deeply sympathizes with his nation and understands its problems. Interestingly, Sherman Alexie distinguishes the problem of alcoholism and poverty among Indian people in the ironic form.
The title of the story reflects accusation of the previous generations for abandoning the heritage and traditions of the native Indians. The modern generation promises to return everything that was taken away from them at any cost. Im a Spokane Indian boy, an Interior Salish, and my people have lived within a hundred-mile radius of Spokane, Washington, for at least ten thousand years (Alexie, 2003). These words demonstrate how proud the protagonist is of his origin and how important it is for him to find his identity.
The author also shows the instability of the modern lifestyle. The story begins with Jackson Jacksons words: One day you have a home and the next you dont (Alexie, 2003). These words can be applied not only to the main character of the story but also to all people in the modern society. Hundreds of people become homeless every day. Though the main protagonist is not one of them and it was his decision to choose such kind of life, he faces the same kind of problems as millions of other homeless people around the world.
The plot of the story is based on the Jackson Jacksons desire to buy his grandmothers powwow regalia from the pawnshop that is run by a white male. The author uses this allegory to show that Indian culture was stolen by whites in America and the modern generation has to pay a high price to return it. The owner of the pawnshop offers Jackson Jackson to buy the regalia for nine hundred and ninety-nine dollars. He gives Jackson twenty-four hours to find the needed amount of money and kindly gives him twenty dollars for a start. Thinking rationally, the majority of people would keep this money and try to find the rest. However, the protagonist decided to use them differently. He spends his money to buy three bottles of imagination (Alexie, 2003) to share them with his friends. Such decision might give an impression to a reader that he is not serious about having the regalia again. It makes one think that Jackson Jackson is an alcoholic that is not capable of focusing on his goal, despite the fact that it might be really important for him. In other words, a bottle of alcohol appears to be the main goal in his life. Jackson Jackson is not ashamed to admit openly that he is an alcoholic, calling himself an alcoholic Indian with a busted stomach (Alexie, 2003). He lives the self-destructive life and is not interested in turning over a new leaf. Such attitude might portray the protagonist as a negative character that represents typical Indian population. According to the statistics provided by the Native American Aid, over twenty-eight percent of American Indians are living below the federal poverty line and there are nearly hundreds of thousands of homeless people (Native American Aid, 2015). It is obvious that such low living standard leads to serious problems with health, and, as a result, increases the death rate of people under 65 years old (Native American Aid, 2015). According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, eight percent of American Indian in eight grade confessed that they were regular marijuana users (Volkow, 2014). Only around forty-seven percent of Native American teens finish high school, compared to seventy-one percent of non-native teens (Volkow, 2014). Such shocking statistics shows that the main character represents problems of the Native Americans. Thus, it would be wrong to put all the blame for the destructive behavior completely on him. It is scientifically proven that alcohol, as well as drugs, depresses the central nervous system. Therefore, these both substances temporarily contribute to stress reduction and create an illusion of helping to quell negative feelings or tackle difficult situations.
To better understand such behavior of Indians, it is necessary to look at the history of the Native Americans and to see all the horror that was done to the nation. Some tribes were completely destroyed by the white invaders. Those who survived were put in reservations and treated like the primitive horse-riding creations. Their entire culture with its traditions and beliefs was infected by so-called acculturation that was imposed by whites. Indians had to abandon their cultural heritage that had been accumulated for hundreds of years and accept a completely new, alien to them culture for the sake of surviving. It is hard to imagine how it feels to lose the native land, traditions, and most of the language. Jackson Jackson confesses: I am living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins. But Im not going to let you know how scared I sometimes get of history and its ways (Alexie, 2003). These words demonstrate the pain of those days that still re-echoes today.
Unfortunately, nowadays, many Indians are homeless. In the story, Jackson Jackson admits that the only one thing he is good at is being homeless (Alexie, 2003). These words reflect not only the fact of living on streets but being a stranger in his own land. He often thinks about his grandmother who died of breast cancer. The author uses the old woman as a symbol of the old generation and the regalia as a symbol of culture and traditions. Therefore, the main protagonist mentions: I wondered if my grandmothers cancer started when somebody stole her powwow regalia (Alexie, 2003). Cancer symbolizes the whites that got into the heart of the nation and took it, causing the death of the entire body.
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Considering the sorrowful history of the Native Americans and the pain they had to undergo, it is no longer surprising that many of them are poor and addicted to alcohol or drugs. The main character of the story admitted that he lived a normal life, had a house, and was married, but then he suddenly went crazy and became homeless (Alexie, 2003). He calls his action crazy, because it is how the white population would see it. However, there is nothing crazy in trying to reveal his identity and in becoming tired of living a life that was imposed on him. Many Indians became alcoholics or drug addicts not because they were searching for fun or were bored, but because they felt lost in their homeland (Szlemko, Wood, & Thurman, 2006). They tried to forget the harsh reality of their lives. Alcohol and drugs abuse caused social and financial problems that led to poverty. It became a vicious circle: poverty increases the level of alcohol and drug addictions, which, in its turn, leads to poverty.
The imposition of the alien culture upon the Native American generated a hybrid society that lost its cultural roots but did not completely accept the new ones. Such people struggle to adapt to the foreign culture but on the other hand, if they could travel back in time, they would not be able to fit into that society either. People started to abuse alcohol to reduce their confusion. That is why alcohol and drugs addiction became a big problem common among Indian Americans. Ignoring this fact will only exacerbate the issue. People have to know about it and understand its reasons, since recognizing it and understanding the root of the problems is the first step to its solving.