While most people equate “Pennsylvania Dutch” with “Amish,” historically, the majority of speakers of this Palatine German-derived American language were not Amish, but were affiliated with Lutheran and German Reformed congregations. Today, however, the Amish are the last speakers to maintain the language; hence the impression that they were ever the only people to use Pennsylvania Dutch. The speaker heard here is among the last generation of fluent non-Amish speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, born between 1910 and 1940. In this interview she tells a fascinating story of “powwowing,” a form of folk medicine that was once widespread among the (non-Amish) majority of Pennsylvania Dutch. The condition referred to here is that of being “liver-grown,” a term that was often applied to infants who had breathing difficulties.
Dialect: PA Non-Amish/Mennonite, Pennsylvania Dutch
Location: Northumberland, Pennsylvania
[What did you use to do when children got sick?]
Well, it’s God’s Word that you have to use for that, you have to speak with God’s Word. When children are liver-grown, and a lot of people don’t know what that is, we have … I have to tell you a little about this.
We once had a child in the neighborhood here, and this woman, the grandmother, came by and said, “Well,” I think, she said, “if you want to see this child alive yet, come to us, you can see her yet.” It was just across the street, and as I was walking up the stairs to see the child before it died, I said, “O, dear Lord,” I said, “this child is liver-grown.”
“Well, what does one do then?” the woman said.
I said, “You have to find someone who can powwow.”
“Well, who can powwow?”
And then I said, “Why, right down the street is woman who can powwow for this child.” I said, “She doesn’t have pneumonia or something else, she’s just liver-grown.” She breathed so hard, you would have thought the child would suffocate. Then I went down and fetched that woman [who could powwow] and went back up with her. And the woman powwowed for the child, this was in the morning. Then she said, “Now,” she said, “this evening I will come again.” Then I went over again [later] and she powwowed again for the child. Well, that evening the child was already sitting up and feeling better, the child was. And then she came a third time, the next morning, and powwowed, and in two days the child was out of bed, up, and running around.
Now, that’s my experience with powwowing. And for a liver-grown condition, when children are liver-grown, you can powwow, if you know what to do. But you have to have to start in the front at the neck and go down over the chest. Then you have to say, “Go out of your ribs, as Lord Jesus Christ went out of his cradle. In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost.” You have to say that three times, in the front going down over the chest and over the ribs, with both hands. Then you do the same thing on the back. But you have to powwow and do it three times, about six or eight hours apart, that helps the children too. Because when children can’t breathe, I don’t know what causes it, but they just get tight in their chest and they just can’t breathe when they’re liver-grown. It comes sometimes from riding in a vehicle, and sometimes also if they jump around too much when they get bigger, they can still get it.