Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The "Dutch" Art of Pow Wow Medicine

When I was a child I had a growth that my Great Aunt Margaret tried to remove for me using the methods of Pennsylvania Dutch pow wow medicine. Aunt Margaret was a practitioner in a very small way, one of probably thousands of Pennsylvania Dutch men and women who used the techniques of pow wow to treat minor ailments of their friends and family. She was not one of the pow wow healers like the Early American "Mountain Mary" or--much closer to our time--"Aunt" Sophia Bailer, whose fame resounded throughout the whole of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
So how did her treatment of me work out? Unsuccessfully. She thought I had a wart, which is what she was treating me for. It turned out to be a vascular tumor, which was later removed by surgery.
This does not mean pow wow medicine is a joke, or should be dismissed as one. Often it was the only treatment poor people had access to--all the more because it was generally known that healers in the tradition were not supposed to accept money.
Sometimes, whether because of inherent magic or because of the placebo effect, there were outstanding cures. Which is about all that can be said about modern medicine, when you come to think of it.
Well, what IS pow wow medicine, anyway? Pow wow medicine is flashes of lightning in a dark forest. This is just a metaphor. What it means is that almost nothing you can say about it will not be contradicted by someone. I am trying here to follow the views and theories of two distinguished Pennsylvania Dutch scholars, anthropologist David W. Kriebel and folklorist Don Yoder. They spent years studying the subject, and know more than I do.
So, here goes.
Pow wow is a kind of folk medicine using spells, herbs, laying on of hands and the like, which is believed to have been brought to Pennsylvania around 1710 by immigrants from what is now Germany. It has nothing to do in its origins with American Indians--and not even in its name. To its original practitioners it was known as Brauche, which means "practice" as in professional practice, or "use" as in custom. Unless you speak German or have studied it, you will more or less have to take my word that "Brauche" could be taken for "pow wow"-- it IS pronounced something like "BROW-kheh". So, draw your own conclusions.
This does not mean that pow wow NEVER took on American Indian features. It may well have done things like adapt American herbs and borrow from American Indian rites. But in its origins it was purely European.
Is pow wow medicine good or evil? Yes!!! Which means, "It depends on who you ask." For some people it is indistinguishable from witchcraft, (or hex) and thus evil. For other people--including my late Great Aunt Margaret and, I suspect, the majority of practitioners, pow wow is on the side of God and provides an opportunity to do good. A few famous practitioners were reputed to try to play both sides.
David Kriebel notes that the strict Dutch sects, like the Amish and Mennonites, were very much against both pow wow and hex. The practitioners tended to belong to more relaxed churches, like the Lutheran or the German Reformed.
Why was this? Don Yoder finds evidence in some of the chants and spells that have become known that pow wow may have had Catholic origins, or at least have been sanctioned by the Catholic Church. There are signs of the cross, saints' names, and so on. So the Amish and Mennonites, the purest of Protestants, were bound to take offense.
Are there still pow wow practitioners around?
There may or may not be. It's a question on which there are differences of opinion.
Want to know more? Then I refer you to David W. Kriebel's "Powwowing among the Pennsylvania Dutch", subtitled "A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World". 2007. University Park, PA.


  1. Good article! There certainly are some Powwows around today :) My church is Lutheran and mostly PA Dutch folks, in Berks County PA, and we have a few Powwows in the congregation, as well as many who have had firsthand experience with Powwow.

    1. please contact me as i want to learn pow pow. i live in massachusetts.

    2. please contact me as i want to learn pow pow. i live in massachusetts.