Literary Journalism

One KU writer’s quest to solve the mystery of Pow-Wow in Berks County

By Jennifer Brown

Alice remembered the time she was five years old and she bumped her arm into a hot iron. Her grandfather waved his hand over her arm and said something she couldn’t understand, something likely in Pennsylvania Dutch.

“It just got better,” said Alice, a local woman with puffy blonde hair, whom I spoke to while in Renninger’s Farmers’ Market.

At least fifty years had passed since Alice was a little girl with a burnt arm. She drank her iced tea in quick sips between words as if she had confessed something that had happened to her yesterday, something she was hesitant to reveal, yet proud of. It was magic that had healed her and she knew it.

Her grandfather was a Pow-Wow healer.

Patrick James Dugan wrote in his piece “The Origin and Practicion of Pow-Wow Among the Pennsylvania Germans,” which can be found at, that Pow-Wow is faith-healing, and that the Pow-Wow practitioner is “more closely allied with theology than medicine and feels he is a mediator between patient and God.” Although Pow-Wow, also known as braucherei, is rooted in Christianity, when I asked locals what they knew about it, they seemed to busy their hands with whatever they could, as if I had asked them about a dark secret.

Marilyn, an older woman who sells shoofly pies and other homemade desserts in the farmer’s market could only think of Native American pow-wows when I asked her if she’s ever heard of it. She sent me over to the Jehovah’s Witnesses table to speak to Norman, a man in a

muddy green suit and with the face of a game show host. He slid to the edge of his folding chair and rubbed his hands together when I asked him what he knew about pow-wow.

“Looking from a Bible’s point of view it would be witchcraft,” he said with a grave expression.

Yet, it seemed that everyone’s grandfather or grandmother had practiced pow-wow, or that they knew someone who had practiced it long ago.

“Let’s say someone’s hand hurts or something like that,” said Randy, Alice’s husband whose grandfather also practiced pow-wow, “someone would say some kind of words and it’s supposed to heal it…They would always say something you couldn’t understand.”

At Dietrich’s Meats, a woman with red-framed glasses in a Christmas apron told me the story of how her father was born weighing only three pounds back in 1935, and her grandmother, a pow-wow practitioner, saved him with herbs.

“There was always someone in the neighborhood who you would know and who’d get herbs and help heal you,” she said as she removed pineapple-shaped hunks of smoked meat from the countertop.

She suggested that I track down a woman name Jesse Tobin, who practices pow-wow and who owns a mushroom farm with her husband Matthew Sichler.

Jesse Tobin lives on Blue Rocks Road in Lenhartsville, which is about twelve miles northwest of KU. Jesse agreed to meet with me, but asked if I’d mind if she cleaned out her refrigerator during the interview, and she warned me that I’d be greeted by her pit-bull, Otis.

I feared that my 2000 Chevy Impala wouldn’t make it up the winding, rocky driveway that lead to Jesse’s house. It seemed that she lived at the very top of a mountain, with a driveway that felt to be at least a mile long, and I wondered how they survived during a blizzard.

When I finally reached the end of the driveway and parked my car, I first noticed a greenhouse-like structure with a pipe on its roof which blew puffs of smoke into the white sky to my left, and then I noticed Jesse’s home to my right – a cozy, log-cabin-styled home.

The step to the back door was a large, flat rock. After I tapped on the door, I heard Otis bark. When the door opened, I immediately held out my palm for Otis, and he sniffed it with his broad muzzle, his tail wagging, then soon looked past me to the more interesting world among the trees. He wore a bright orange vest which reminded me of a life jacket.

Jesse is in her early thirties and has long brown hair and glasses. She looked familiar to me, although I couldn’t think of a time or place I may have seen her before.

Upon entering her home, I was stunned by its rustic beauty. She and her husband had built the home from scrap materials, though it felt and looked like something that had been built over a hundred years ago.

I was standing in the kitchen, a room painted in different shades of green and lined with aged wooden cabinetry. The lighting was soft and dim like candlelight and made the space appear to be larger than it really was. In front of me was an old upright piano, and to my left an antique stove which was used as a space for thick loaves of bread and large jars filled with something orange; a working gas stove stood adjacent to it. The center island was topped with slate and covered with various shaped jars, bottles, and gourds. Cast iron skillets hung from heart-shaped hooks, which were nailed to a thick wooden beam. Jesse and Matthew had hit the beam with an ax to give it a weathered appearance.

For as long as Jesse could remember, she had always been interested in medicine men, witches, and fairies. When she found out that there was some sort of tradition in in her culture, she “jumped right in.”

Jesse had graduated from Kutztown High School in 1999 and then Prescott College in Arizona with a degree in the healing arts. After school, she decided to study Pow-Wow under Dennis Boyer, a man from Hereford Township and author of a book titled Once upon a Hex: a Spiritual Ecology of the Pennsylvania Germans.

According to Jesse, braucherei is a European version of Asian medicine, but it’s not just medicine, it’s magical theory. It’s a system of symbols. She waved her hands around as she told me how modern-day scholars of the tradition “whitewash it.”

“They want to take everything out of it that couldn’t be Christian,” she said.

Jesse stood across from me, with her coffee mug and a quart of half and half, and I watched her speak as I sat on a stool, Otis brushing past my legs like a furry shark now and then.

“White is water,” she said as she smacked her hand against the chalkboard tabletop. “Red is blood…is fire…is sanguine.” She again pounded her hand on the island, with a smile. “It’s hardwired. Those are our symbols.”

She pointed out that I was using symbols as I hurried to keep up with her in my notebook.

I told Jesse that the topic of powwow seemed to be a touchy subject when I asked around about it. It was a relief to finally find someone who was comfortable discussing Pow-Wow, whether it contained Christian elements or not.

“It’s always been a touchy subject,” she said. “It has been since it started. People were hard-lined against it since they got off the boat…Can they find pagan elements in it? Sure. I can find that in Christmas dinner.”

Jesse’s two-year-old son started to cry for noodles, so Jesse turned the knob to her gas stove, blew into the burner’s flame, and prepared to boil water in a saucepan.

“Some Christians embrace it, some don’t,” she said as she dumped the spiraled pasta into the boiling water.

Jesse’s son whipped the empty macaroni and cheese box to the floor and stomped his tiny feet.

“Sweetie, they’re not done yet,” she told him.

One example of a powwow ritual was taking a red string and measuring the height of a child with a disease like asthma, followed by throwing the string into a fire. When the child would grow to be past the height of the string, the asthma would go away.

After her son finished his plate of noodles, Jesse started to scrub the saucepan and other dishes with a blue sponge. The pale December light filtered through the window and danced with the steam rising from the hot sink water.

I asked her what she thought made Pow-Wow work.

“I don’t know,” she said with a shrug. “And I don’t care. If it’s a placebo effect, cool. They don’t have to take meds that’ll hurt their bodies. If there’s a god, cool. I just don’t care. If it works, it works.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “That’s my perspective.”

Jesse carried her son back upstairs to watch “Sesame Street.”

“Did you have some nice noodles?” she said to him, her voice trailing off around the corner.

When she returned a few moments later, she told me how her mentor Dennis believed it worked because of the Holy Spirit. Jesse tied her hair back into a bun.

“Even if the Holy Spirit turns out to be a bunch of electrons or subatomic particles that’s fine. I’m not the kind of person who gets hung up on titles or words. It’s more about intention.”