Powwowing in Pennsylvania by Patrick J. Donmoyer

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

Powwowing in Pennsylvania
Braucherei and the Ritual of Everyday Life
by Patrick J. Donmoyer
Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center/Masthof Press, 343 pp., cloth $45, paper $35

In Powwowing in Pennsylvania, author Donmoyer gives a fresh and comprehensive account of traditional ritual healing practices (largely) among the Pennsylvania Dutch. The book ties together years of solid research, ethnographic data collection, and even participant observation (Donmoyer himself apprenticed with a powwow doctor). He begins by tracing the European origins of the practice and how at its core is the performance of rituals. Over several chapters, he then describes the many artifacts used in powwowing including literature, botanicals and objects. Later, he traces the complex relationship between powwowing and outsiders — how it has interacted with the medical community, legal authorities, and the media. Importantly, the final two chapters show the everyday nature of powwowing and the vibrancy of its study as not merely an obsolete form of superstition.

Donmoyer’s entire narrative is fascinating. The early chapters especially benefit from considerable and careful research. These chapters highlight Donmoyer’s adeptness in conveying information from a variety of disciplines in a manner that is decidedly understandable. He has richly illustrated the book with photographs, mainly from his own Heilman Collection. In all, he shows that powwowing is far from obsolete and far from the sensationalized superstition depicted in media and promoted even within the community today. Donmoyer suggests at the end that powwowing “challenges us to become more fully cognizant of the ways in which ritual is still very much an active force in present human endeavor to heal existential concerns and satisfy hunger for meaning.” Indeed, powwowing is a practice rooted in everyday life, relevant today as then, and tells us so much about the human experience by offering a window into our own hopefulness to heal.

Joshua R. Brown
University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire