Hope and a Prayer
Traiteurs of Acadiana remain on call
JANE SANDERS ILLUSTRATION
A concerned father carries his 7-year-old son into a house, followed closely behind by an even more troubled mother. The boy only moments earlier had been one of several running and playing in the hot summer sun.
His pale skin was hot and dry to the touch. He was no longer sweating, his breathing and pulse were both rapid, and he was pained by a headache.
The boy was a victim of sunstroke, a common aliment in the South due to its intense heat and humidity.
Rather than gathering up their son and rushing him to a nearby emergency room, the boy’s parents opted for a more traditional remedy – they sought out a traiteur in their local community.
Traiteurs are spiritual healers. They are both male and female, most are Catholic, and many times the prayers are recited in French. They all believe what they offer is a gift passed on to them by God and it is to be shared with those in need.
Tradition holds that a male traiteur receives the prayers from a female, such as a mother, grandmother or aunt, while female traiteurs receive their instruction from a male relative. They receive no payment for their treatments and do not seek the limelight.
The boy being treated for sunstroke was laid out on a sofa in the traiteur’s living room while his parents waited in the kitchen nearby. The traiteur, a woman in this case, “treated” the boy with hands dipped in cool tap water and recited a prayer.
Within a few minutes of being brought into the woman’s small white wood-framed home, the boy was on his feet and feeling better.
These treatments occur throughout Acadiana on a daily basis. They are a way of life in Louisiana’s Cajun Country.
People seek treatment from traiteurs for a wide variety of ailments and conditions, including sprains, warts, pneumonia, colds, headaches and toothaches. Mothers with colicky and teething babies often seek out the relief offered by the traiteurs.
Barry Ancelet, a professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and a French Louisiana folklorist, says the traiteurs of Acadiana result from a fusion of traditions from a variety of cultures.
He says there was a blending of physiological phenomenon – physical treatment with plants – and faith healing – the power of suggestion.
“Once here in Louisiana, the Acadians encountered Native Americans that also had similar practices, both the physiological and spiritual,” he says. “They also encountered the Africans who had been brought to Louisiana in slavery, who brought with them a certain set of healing strategies.
“Those three healing traditions – European, Native American and African – all found themselves living in close proximity, and what was really interesting is that all three traditions were remarkably similar, so they fused,” he continues.
Ancelet says what traiteurs offer is known as a “shy tradition,” because it is not openly performed.
“They only go into action when a local connection is activated,” he says.
Folk medicine and faith healing
Ancelet says his maternal grandfather was a “blood-stopper.” He says the man could stop bleeding with an incantation.
“It worked on a remarkably consistent basis,” he says. “But, in all fairness, we hear about the stories where it worked, but when it doesn’t work, they don’t tell those stories. So the information can be skewed.”
Ancelet recounts his own encounter with a traiteur in 1978 after undergoing nasal surgery: “After the doctor removed the packing and I was at home, a blood vessel ruptured in an area they could not get to, and so I was slowly bleeding to death despite treatment at the hospital. My mother, who had spent the night watching her son slowly bleed to death, called a traiteur she knew that lived in Vatican near Scott.”
Ancelet says the traiteur asked his mother what hospital he was in, and she told him Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette.
“He told her he could treat me because there was no water between where I was and he was,” he says. “He told her to point the phone at me, and he would treat me. A half-hour later the bleeding stopped. Was it the medical treatment or his treatment? I don’t know, but I was not going to second-guess what had happened.”
Another unique aspect of the traiteurs is the fact that they are not paid or thanked for their services, Ancelet says.
“They give you something and do not require anything in exchange,” he notes. “You end up owing that person or feel like you owe that person. It offers an opportunity to do something for that person if such a need should arise.”
Even though they don’t ask for payment, traiteurs often find produce and other such gifts left at their doorsteps.
Traiteurs and their treatments have long been sources of study for academics, but they have also been the subject of art, documentaries and even popular culture over the past few years.
Louisiana artist George Rodrigue, famous for his Blue Dog paintings, produced Cajun Traiteuse, a painting of a female traiteur, and Doc Moses, Cajun Traiteur, a painting of a male traiteur.
Glen Pitre, a Louisiana native and filmmaker, along with Nicole Falgoust, produced Good For What Ails You in 1998. The documentary features Louisiana’s traiteurs and their treatments.
Pitre, whose directorial credits include Belizaire the Cajun, had a great-aunt who was a well-known traiteur.
A recent episode of the History Channel’s popular Swamp People featured one of the stars seeking out a traiteur to treat a sprained ankle.
Several books, including Cajun Country, authored by Ancelet, Pitre and Jay Edwards, have been printed over the past 20 years. They explore the tradition of traiteurs in Louisiana.
Traiteurs can be found throughout Acadiana.
Becca Begnaud, a traiteur from Scott, has been treating for about 10 years. Her grandfather was a traiteur.
“People come, and I pray for them, and they leave,” she says. “I don’t often know the outcome, but I know what they receive from me is from God.”
Among the ailments Begnaud treats are warts, skin rashes, sunstroke, headaches, toothaches and sprains.
She treats both at her home and by distance over the telephone.
“What I get from this is beyond words,” she says. “I see those being treated feeling better, and it brings me a peace to help people. If more people acted like traiteurs, we would have world peace.”
Begnaud says the transmission of the treatment is oral and that the prayers are sacred, never written down and not shared with anyone except a traiteur.
She notes traiteurs have to be able to feel what is wrong with a person being treated.
“When I treat someone, I put all of the energy I have into it,” she says. “It is not me healing anyone but God.”
Lois Marie Guidry, a traiteur from Church Point, has been offering help to others in her community for three years. She says her elderly cousin passed his gift on to her.
The most unusual thing about Guidry’s treatment process is the use of a thick knotted string, known in French as corde nouée. She says depending on the size and needs of the person being treated, she ties either nine or 12 knots in the string, which is then tied around the person’s waist or wrist.
The knotted cord remains on the person until it breaks. Depending on the need, the cord process may be repeated to ensure a successful treatment.
“After I treat someone, all that pain they have goes into the knot,” she says. “I am not sure why or how this works, but I know it does.”
Although she spends her days working, Guidry says she is busy in the evenings and weekends treating people.
“It makes me feel wonderful to pass this gift from God on to others in need,” she says. “I pray to God, and He helps me help people. I feel more with the Lord when I treat folks in need.”
The Rev. Wayne Duet, pastor of St. Edward Catholic Church in Richard, says traiteurs don’t advertise their services and become known in their communities by word of mouth.
“There is nothing magic; it is prayer,” he says. “They have a particular gift, and they are passing that gift on to others. There is a power in those prayers.”
Duet is quick to point out the importance and good that comes from prayers.
The church in Richard knows a thing or two about prayers, as it is the site of the grave of Charlene Richard. Richard, who died of leukemia at age 12 in August 1959, dedicated her brief life to praying for those in need despite her own condition.
In the years since her death, thousands of people have reported being cured and other extraordinary occurrences by praying for Charlene’s intercession or by visiting her grave.
“The prayers bring peace and comfort,” Duet notes. “The prayers can’t change what will happen, but through prayer, peace and comfort come, and that can do amazing things for those hurting or even dying.”
What traiteurs offer is not voodoo or witchcraft.
Robert Benoit, a Eunice traiteur, has been treating since he was 15 years old, after receiving the gift from an aunt on his mother’s side.
“I have been treating people for 21 years and have stayed fairly busy,” he says. “I treat for bleeding, sunstroke, sprained ankles, teething babies,
babies with colic and headaches, shingles and warts.”
Benoit says he does not treat for fame or fortune.
“I enjoy helping people because it makes me happy to see or hear about them getting better,” he says. “I see what I have as a gift from God given to me to help people.”
The soft-spoken Benoit does become somewhat riled when people dismiss or label what he and other traiteurs offer.
“Some say it is voodoo, and that does get me pretty upset,” he says. “They don’t understand that it’s not ... it has nothing to do with voodoo or … the devil. It’s through God that we are asking for help to heal this person. No magic or anything like that.”
In keeping with the tradition, Benoit says he asks for nothing in exchange for his treatments.
“Sometimes people will buy me a pocket knife for my collection, or they will bring me food because they know I like to eat,” he says, chuckling. “I do it because it offers me a chance to help out someone in need.”
Jennifer Kennerson of Church Point was one of those in need of a traiteur a few years ago and sought out Benoit. Her then-infant son, Zeb, was teething and in severe pain.
“Nothing I tried would work, and he was hurting so bad,” she says. “I found out about Robert, and I took Zeb to him. He put a hole in the middle of a dime and put the dime on a safety pin and pinned it to Zeb’s clothes.”
She says within a few moments, her baby was no longer crying and was content.
“He treated Zeb, and he was fine,” she says. “I am not sure what happened or why it worked, but I know it did, and that is all that matters.”
Kennerson says she still has that dime attached to the safety pin that brought her child such relief.