Rhiannon Sorrell (Diné), MLIS, MA, 2014

Adaptable To Courses In:

  • Intro to American Indian Studies
  • American Indian Literature
  • Contemporary American Indian Issues
  • Select Topics in Indigenous Art, Business, and Economics

Primary Sources

Arts and Crafts of the Southwest Indians (1940) in the American Indian Film Gallery (

"What You Pawn I Will Redeem" by Sherman Alexie. Originally published in The New Yorker (Available here: or, in the book, Ten Little Indians (New York: Grove Press, 2003).


Introduction to the Sources

The Film:

The major theme of this film involves the display of Native artisanship and the economic exchange that occurs between Indian and Trader. The film features the practice and significance of pawning among the Navajo and the Trader. This economic exchange remains a crucial part of the lives of many American Indians on reservations.

The Story:

Alexie's short story, included in the collection Ten Little Indians, follows a homeless man's quest to reclaim a dress he believes belonged to his grandmother from a pawn shop in Seattle.

 Their Conversation:

The story touches on the bittersweet modern-day relationship between the Native customer and the White broker. The item being pawned contains the very being of its owner, and as a result, its exchange and sale becomes a way of putting a price on an individual because their work is an extension of the self. The film also demonstrates this dynamic in the continuous exchange between the broker and the artist. The two contrast in the perception of time before the collateral is put up for sale (dead pawn) and the medium of exchange. The film portrays a more positive view of the trader/broker: there is no time contract for redeeming and the medium of exchange does not necessarily require cash. The terms of brokering in Alexie's story (practices that are more modern) are not as favorable toward Native customers. Despite this, many Natives cannot survive without placing part of their livelihood in pawn. Alexie's protagonist endeavors to recover the powwow outfit that is his grandmother, symbolizing the livelihood and selfhood in the personal property that goes into this exchange.


Trading and Pawn has played an important role in the local economy of not only the Navajo, but in many Native American communities. Trading posts became community hubs were goods and news were exchanged. The trading post provided an outlet for Native artisans and their crafts, which helped to preserve and uphold traditional culture. Most trading posts offered pawn services which were important for many Native individuals both in old times and modern, as they were often in need of small loans that the banks did not offer. Pawn offered an alternative means of exchange and dealings in a place where cash was only recently introduced and bartering and trading had previously held prominence. Though it was an important service component of trading posts, the pawn practice was no without its problems: it was often the cause of angry disputes between trader and Native customer and the outcome caused problems for the Indian agents involved. Despite this, pawn continues to play an important role in modern economic exchange on the reservation.


  • To introduce readers to the concept of trading and pawn among Native American communities and its impact on the local economy.
  • To guide users and participants in close watching and reading activities that will later help to engage discussion about their findings.
  • To encourage readers to seek visual and literary significance in the film and story regarding the pawn practice among Native Americans communities.
  • To encourage readers to develop and defend their own views about the pros and cons of such an economic practice, and to evaluate its ongoing impact in respective communities.

The Plan

Watch the film, Arts and Crafts of the Southwest Indians  ( While watching, take note of:

  • The resources available to the Navajo; observe their livelihood and what is important to them.
  • The relationship with the trader, as the film depicts it.
  • How the pawn system works
  • The finer details of silversmithing.
  • The process and finer details of creating a hand-woven Navajo rug.
  • The journey to the trading post; the effort it takes (actual & metaphorical) to get there.
  • The exchange that occurs and the fairness of the exchange as it appears to you.
  • The judgment and scrutiny of the Trader-From-Window Rock.

Read "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." While reading, take note of:

  • The protagonist's relationship with the other Natives in Seattle, his interactions and descriptions of them.
  • The protagonist's description of the pawn shop.
  • The stories and sentiments attributed to the powwow regalia.
  • The depiction of the pawn broker and his offer to the protagonist.
  • The various activities the protagonist under takes to earn money and the degree of their success.
  • The protagonist's relationship with the non-Natives, businesses and organizations.
  • The final interaction between the protagonist and the pawn broker.

Discussion Kindling

  • Compare and contrast the depictions of the trader/pawn broker in the film and in the book. Evaluate the transactions that occur between them and the customer. How would you describe their relationship/interaction?
  • What is the significance of the small yellow bead inside the dress? How can this significance be related to the jewelry and rugs created in the film?
  • Consider the word "redeem." What does it mean? What is the word's significance in both the film and short story contexts?
  • Evaluate the fairness of the brokers and the results of the final transaction. What is gained, significantly and symbolically, by the customers?
  • It could be said that a journey or quest occurs in both the film and story. What is this journey? What is its overall significance?
  • To what degree do you think trading/pawn among the Native American community is a good thing? To what degree is it bad?

Further Reading

Weiss, Lawrence David. The Development of Capitalism in the Navajo Nation: A Political Economic History. Minneapolis: MEP Publications, 1984.

William S. Kiser. "Navajo Pawn: A Misunderstood Traditional Trading Practice." The American Indian Quarterly 36.2 (2012): 150-181.