Healers draw on a folk tradition that dates to the eighteenth century and includes Creole, Native American, Cajun, and European influences.
Traiteurs are individuals who heal various ailments through the power of prayer, ritual gestures, and/or natural remedies. Traitement, or “treatment,” is a folk practice of faith healing that originated in the eighteenth century and has endured in modern-day rural Louisiana to help others in the community with illness.
A traiteur, or treater, practices a ritual form of healing based on verbal interaction, including prayer. As a rule participants, or patients, must request traitement and cannot thank the traiteur for their services. It is believed that traitement cannot “cross” a body of running water, although some traiteurs do treat over the phone. Far from being a universal answer to illness, traitement serves as a specific cultural response to illness, coexisting with modern medical care. Traitement is a blending of traditions originating in the eighteenth century in rural communities populated by diverse cultural groups—Creole, Native American, Cajun, and European. Each tradition contributed a unique element to the practice of traitement: Native Americans provided a knowledge of medicinal plants; Creoles integrated a belief in the transference of disease into their practice as well as herbal tea remedies; and Cajuns integrated prayer using the baptismal name of the individual. Sharing a common need for medical attention, these various traditions borrowed from each other, sometimes resulting in a blending of native, Afro-Caribbean, and European traditions that folklorist Nick Spitzer refers to as cultural creolization.
Traitement typically occurs in the home during a vieillée, or a house visit, but may also, at the discretion of the traiteur, occur over the phone. In most cases the traiteur and visitors are seated in a circle of chairs in the kitchen area. A participant must ask for traitement—naming their illness and furnishing the traiteur with their baptismal name. The request shifts the vieillée from a visit to a healing session, with the traiteur then excusing themself to honor the request. As traitement is a private moment between the traiteur, the participant, and God, observers must sit quietly while the traiteur sets to work. This usually involves whispering a prayer, laying on hands, or making the sign of the cross over the affected body part.
Traiteurs guard their prayers until their obligation is activated by a request from someone, meaning that participants must seek out treatment from someone who does not volunteer their services. A traiteur’s knowledge of the rules leading to the laying on of hands as well as the particulars of performance assures his or her reputation as a specialist. The participant—often given details of the process beforehand by family members—initiates the request for traitement by naming and narrating their experience of their illness. Once this request is completed, the traiteur performs prayers to seek healing for the participant, typically repeating the incantation three times in 15-minute intervals. Although there are variations on frequency and timing, most audiences comprising the participant and any other family members are aware of the spacing of prayers. The ritual format of speaking between traiteur and participant has a performative efficacy and plays a role in the healing process: the cultural belief in naming the illness releases it and invokes the communal value of reciprocity.
Traiteurs view their words and prayers as both a gift and a vocation, which implies an obligation towards the voisinage, or community. As traiteur Eunice Duhon explains: “My father told me that I absolutely cannot refuse to treat anybody. He said: ‘When someone comes—if they are Black or white—treat them.’ Because, he said, ‘They have the same pain that we have.’ So, I will treat everyone.” An individual’s request for a traitement activates a latent obligation to give to the community. The request sets in motion the circulation of mots pour maux, or “words for illness.” While there is no payment—anything resembling a payment is refused—gifts are accepted in the form of money left behind on the kitchen table, food offerings left on the doorstep at a later date, etc. Thus, a component of the healing process is learning to give in a culturally defined manner.
Verbal and Herbal Healing
Using traitement means accessing a community response to illness and therefore serves as a viable answer to illness. The traiteur whispers a prayer, lays on hands, or makes the sign of the cross over the affected body area. There is a reverence for the prayers, which are not audible. As Vincent Mouton, a participant in traitement, observes, “Sometimes they said prayers, but I could not hear. I saw them make the sign of the cross. . . Supposedly, they were treating you. They sat in a chair in front of everyone. They would excuse themselves and treated you.” At a moment such as this, a traiteur could share remedies depending on the illness, as traiteur E. Davidson shares: “I treat them. And then, I tell them to put some whiskey with some camphor in it. And mix it together, then you brush it [the mixture], there, then pass it where the shingles are.” A traitement could also include the transference of an illness to an object, such as marking a tree with the height of a child. When the child grows past it, his or her asthma will diminish. With warts, participants bury a potato blessed by a traiteur, and when the potato rots, the wart will disappear. The following are a few examples of herbal remedies: Grain de Mamou (Erythrina herbacea), which can be crushed and made into a tea for colds, or orange flower, which can make a tea for a cough. Home remedies include baking soda (in a bath for rashes or prickly heat), rice water (used with baking soda as a drink for food poisoning), or carrot water (for jaundice). The examples of natural remedies, home remedies, and traitements indicate an understanding of illness that reflects a community’s interaction with the environment.