When space is created amongst two or more medicinal constructs, the healing practices of each can positively influence the others and provide expanded opportunities for healing. Pennsylvania Dutch Powwowing can offer Western Medicine some principles and practices that could prove very beneficial to positive outcomes for individuals who are seeking better health. Powwowing not only addresses the physical expression of illness but also the emotional and spiritual whereas Western medicine has historically relied heavily on the physical manifestations of disease. Three principles or practices of client focused care, rituals and herbal medicines, in particular, stand out for application to Western medicine. However, these are not without barriers to integration into Western practices.
First, the relationship of the healer and the client is of particular importance in the powwowing tradition. Most Western medicine practitioners interact with a large volume of clients on a daily basis. This type of flow of care can lack warmth and can create assumptions about a particular client with the seemingly similar presentation of physical symptoms as other clients. Generally, the same treatment or medicines are prescribed for each client with similar presentations. In contrast, powwow healers spend a great deal of time with their clients and generally have a relationship outside of the health event. Powwowers tend to be part of community and go to the same grocery store or church, use the services of the same plumber, hairdresser, etc. (Dieffenbach, 1975; Kriebel, 2007). Powwowers also look at what is also occurring in the individual’s life other than the physical symptoms. It is not uncommon for a powwower to address any emotional or spiritual conflict that may be occurring for the individual (Kriebel, 2007; Wentz, 1993). Western practitioners could potentially increase positive outcomes for their clients by spending more time with their clients, hearing their stories and considering other causes of presenting problems. For example, a client presents with high blood pressure and insomnia. Upon hearing that the client has changed jobs and is caring for an ailing partner, the practitioner might suggest breathing exercises, daily walking and valerian instead of a statin and Ambien, as a first level of treatment.
Second, the PA Dutch powwower uses rituals to potentiate the healing environment. A powwower believes that their healing power comes directly from God and the objects they use such as a powwow chair or a piece of red yarn, represent certain aspects of these beliefs (Donmoyer, 2017; Kriebel, 2007). They may also have a particular room where they see clients as well. They may also pray before seeing a client or use a charm or talisman to protect the area from negative influences (Kriebel, 2007). The western practitioner can also infuse within their healing practices, a sense of comfort and familiarity by warming up their exam rooms with pieces of their own selves – photos, trinkets and mementos given to them from family, friends, and clients, things which are special to them – a chair, a pillow, a shawl, etc. By bringing this personal and positive energy into the room, a client will feel comfort and a sense of importance to the practitioner. The western practitioner can also pause before stepping into the exam room, take a cleansing breath, say a prayer, or some kind of meaningful ritual that prepares them to see the next client in that client’s space while minimizing the leftover energies of the previous encounter.
Finally, the use of native plant medicines in the healing traditions of the PA Dutch healing tradition can certainly influence western medicinal practices. Powwowers generally use prayer and odd charms to provide healing. However, some powwowers will also use medicinal herbs. Many PA Dutch gardens had a medicinal section that was purposefully planted to provide a first wave of treatment options to the family in treating everyday maladies and illnesses (Body, 1968; Hyde, 1981; Lusch, 2014; Shaner, 1965; Wieand, 1961). Powwowers may offer a tea of specific herb to be taken over several days or weeks for a particular ailment along with prayer and “trying” sessions (Dieffenbach, 1975; Kriebel, 2007). One particular and sainted powwower among the PA Dutch was Mountain Mary (Gerhart, 2013). She was renowned for medicinal herb gardens and treated people from her garden. She was a botanist and devoted much of her life to providing comfort and healing to others. Western practitioners could certainly incorporate herbal medicines into their repertoire of treatments. Herbal medicines in many first world countries like Germany, are the some of the first lines of treatments. In the west, practitioners tend to prescribe pharmaceuticals for physical symptoms which could be remedied with less expensive botanicals, and with less side effects. Herbal medicines are typically available without a prescription and can be found or grown in one’s back yard.
Despite the simplicity of integrating client focused interactions, rituals and herbal medicines into western medicinal practices, there are several barriers. Money driven healthcare as well as training and acceptance of alternative types of care are clearly obstacles for western practitioners to incorporate or even consider powwowing practices.
First, healthcare in this country is money driven (Mahar, 2006). Healthcare has shifted from being a community based practitioner who holds the welfare of his or her patients as the ultimate standard, to corporate base which holds the interest of its shareholders as of primary importance. Most western practitioners are part of a practice which tends to be part of a large corporate group. For example, when I first returned home, I went to a family practice. East Berlin Family Medicine was a small practice in a very small town. It was easy to get an appointment and time in the waiting room was minimal. Over the last several years, the family practice was swallowed up by a large hospital group, York Hospital. This past year, York Hospital was absorbed into Wellspan Health. My fees to see a doctor increased as well as my wait time in the waiting room and the exam room. Because profits have become an important main goal in the delivery of healthcare, western practitioners are bound to their employers and their liability insurance providers to maintain steady cash flow. This means less time with patients, over scheduling appointments, and more reliance on labs, procedures and generalized standards of care which in turn, increase costs. For example, if I call my PCP office and say I have some mild and intermittent chest pain but do not have any other cardiac symptoms, the first response is to go to the hospital. Granted, if I am having a cardiac event, this is where I want to go. However, if I am not exhibiting other symptoms and go to the ER, I will acquire huge bills by the time I am finished to simply find out that I am experiencing digestive issues related to stress. I will be prescribed an acid inhibitor which does not help my problem in the long run and I will still not be well. Overall, a money driven healthcare system is about the profits of the shareholders which will always outweigh the comfort and care of clients.
The second barrier to integration is training and acceptance. Though in the last several years there does seem to be a shift due to client demand and the profits that are generated by CAM practices. This shift has been evident in acknowledgement of non western medicines and further research. CAM services are now being offered as part of a treatment plan. Many western practitioners spend a lot of money and time in preparation to become a western medical doctor. Adding more coursework and rotations in CAM protocols and practices may be feasible but not profitable to corporate healthcare due to time and money. However, the biggest barrier is the acceptance that other healing traditions which are not necessarily or obviously based in germ theory or overt scientific evidence have value in healing individuals. Praying a specific charm over someone to remove the pain from being burned may seem as credible or perceived to be helpful as a prescribed topical.
Overall, some of the principles and practices of Pennsylvania Dutch Powwowing could have a place in Western medicine. Western doctors could choose to practice truly client focused medicine by spending more time with patients, hearing their stories and listening to what outcomes they would like to experience. Western doctors could also express their beliefs and personal energies into their practice by creating warmer exam rooms embedded with their own mementos and charms as powwowers do. Finally, Western doctors can gain an understanding about the use of herbal medicines as a first line treatment and prescribes these themselves or make referrals to an herbalist or powwower.
Body, A.P. (1968). The Medical Plants of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Folklife 18(1).
Dieffenbach, V. (1975). Powwowing among the Pennsylvania Germans. Pennsylvania Folklife 25(2).
Donmoyer, P., curator (2017). “Powwowing in Pennsylvania: Healing Rituals of the Dutch County.” Glencairn Museum. Retrieved October 26, 2017 from https://glencairnmuseum.org/newsletter/2017/3/2/powwowing-in-pennsylvania.
Gerhart, T., ed. (2013). Der Reggeboge. Journal of the Pennsylvania German Society 47(1).
Hyde C. (1981). An Early Pennsylvania Dutch Garden Revisited. Pennsylvania Folklife 30(4).
Kriebel, D. (2007). Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch. University Park, PA: The Penn State University Press.
Lusch, R. (2014, April 6). The Nine Sacred Herbs of the Braucherei and the Urglaawe [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.blanzeheilkunscht.com/2014/04/the-nine-sacred-herbs-of-braucherei-and_6.html.
Mahar, M. (2006). The High Cost of Money-Driven Medicine. Medscape General Medicine, 8(3), 9.
Shaner, R. (1965). Uni Day’s Herb Garden. Pennsylvania Folklife 14(3).
Wentz, R. (1993). Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Spirituality. Ephrata, PA: Pennsylvania German Society.
Wieand, P. (1961). Folk Medicine Plants. Mechanicsburg, PA: Remembrance Press.