Prayers of a Traiteur

When my brother was 8 years old, he suffered from warts on his feet.  My mother had taken him to a doctor who tried to cure his condition using various techniques and ointments.  With each treatment, his feet would clear up…but it was only a matter of time before the warts would return, sometimes worse than before.  After exhausting what seemed to be every option, my mom was given the name of a woman who healed people’s ailments through prayer.  This woman lived out in the country, nearby our home in Opelousas, Louisiana.  Out of frustration for my brother’s condition, and with nothing to loose, she took him to see this healer.  When they arrived, he was taken into a private candle-lit room. There, my brother laid on a table while a series of prayers were said over his feet.  The very next day, the warts began to turn light black. A week later, they were completely gone…and never came back.

There is a feeling of mystery in the story when my mother tells it…like it was some sort of miracle.  Both my mother and brother describe the awe they felt when the warts left his feet and never returned.  It wasn’t until years later, when reading more deeply about Cajun history, that I came across the french term traiteur.  A traiteur, or ‘treater’ in English, is a community healer.  Traiteurs heal a variety of ailments through repeating specific french prayers that have been passed down for centuries.  The treatments from a traiteur are a common and valuable form of healing in many rural Cajun communities.   When I landed in Louisiana this spring, I sought to speak with a traiteur because I wanted to learn more.  This is how I came to meet Mrs. Judy Gaspard of Forked Island, Louisiana.

Judy Gaspard is a 5th generation traiteur.  Traiteurs are seen by some as faith healers, people who channel the energy of God.  Judy explains, “it is not us that does the treating…we’re just the go-between…God does the healing.”  Most traiteurs see their work as a gift from God and do not accept payment for their services.  In the past, they would also not accept a thank you, in fear the treatment would not work.*  This past April I had a chance to sit with Judy and ask her some questions about her role as a treater.

                                                                How long have you been a practicing traiteur?  I’ve been doing this for about 35-36 years.  I got it from my dad. I’m the 5th generation that treats.  My dad, grandpa, great grandpa, and great great grandpa were all traiteurs.

Is there a particular story around how you were chosen to carry on this practice/tradition of healing?  A man has to give over his treatments to a younger woman and a woman has to give over her treatments to a younger man…unless you are ready to stop treating, then you can give it to anyone.  We were 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls.  One day my dad came to me and wanted to ask me a question.  I immediately thought, ‘O Lord, what did I do…?’.  (chuckles) He said “I’d like you to take over my treating…I’m not going to stop treating but I can hand it down to a younger woman.”  I said, ‘Daddy, why me?’  He told me out of all his children he could see it in me.  He saw how I liked to help people.  It was true…I was always trying to help help somebody.  Today too…if I can help anybody, I’m going to do it.  And that’s how it got started.

How long does it take for the treatments to start working?  (If it’s a phone meeting), some people tell me right after they hang up.  They say within 5 minutes, the sunstroke is gone…the hurting is gone…the earaches are gone…the toothaches, gone.  Some of them will say it takes about 5-10 minutes.  I also treat for warts and a lot of them will fall off right away and other times, it’ll take 2-3 days.  It varies.  I go by what people tell me.

Can you treat animals, too?  Yes, a traiteur can treat animals.  My dad has saved race horses.  My husband’s uncle, Mr. Orville Ryder, raised race horses–and one day a horse was racing and it fell.  The people there told him to shoot the horse, to put it down…told him the horse will never race again.  My husband overheard and said, ‘No, don’t kill your horse. Call my father-in-law.’  So he called my dad and my dad went out there and treated that horse.  It was within an hour of treating it, that the horse was up and around.  And he continued on to win a lot of races.  Another thing…you can also treat for bad weather, not just people and animals.  If you hear thunder and lightening in the distance…before it reaches your home, you can say the prayer for that treatment.  And you’ll see how the storm rolls further and further away.  My little grandson used to call me everytime the weather turned bad.  He’d say ‘Maw maw, can you treat the bad weather please?’…he’d call me everytime.

How often do you get people seeking your prayers?  Sometimes during the day I’ll get 4 or 5 people calling…and at night, too…they‘ll call.  Occasionally people will call me the next morning saying that their grandbaby cried all night long…but they didn’t want to call and wake me up.  I tell the people that I can go back to sleep.  Don’t let someone suffer if we can help them.  Call me.  I don’t care if it’s one o’clock in the morning….don’t let this child or adult suffer if there is any hope that we can help them.

When, and to whom, will you choose to pass on these healing prayers?  I will feel it.  I think whenever I find the right person, I’m gonna feel it.  I’m not going to give it to anybody until I find that this person is going to do good with it.

Judy described that most people who know about traiteurs and the healing they do, live in rural Louisiana.  Though over time, she has gotten phone calls from people living in other states.  People hear about her through word of mouth.  It’s a common myth that the prayers do not work if the traiteur lives far away from the person needing healing, or if there is an ocean or water separating them.  This is not true, says Judy.  The prayers work…regardless of the distance between the traiteur and person they are treating.  This afternoon, Judy told me multiple stories of people she treats and this particular story stuck with me:

My talk with Judy led me to further question how medical systems in this country saturate our lives and influence how we approach modalities of healing.  During this time when many folks in America do not have access to health care, I can’t help but think about the positive effects that various healers have on our communities (traiteurs being one example).  They bring an alternative, offering different ways of healing that may otherwise be unattainable.  And economically, they serve people in ways that are often more sustainable.  While the benefits of science and western medicine continue to amaze, I think it is equally important to uphold and support practices of healing that are rooted in past traditions, whether they be spiritual, earth-based or both.  In my opinion, it would be tragic to see these traditions fade.  When I asked Judy how she perceives the future of the traiteur, here is what she had to say:

These prayers are part of an oral tradition that has withstood centuries.  Without tradition, these prayers would have died…and without faith, perhaps they never would worked in the first place.  I’m curious to hear the stories of others who have been healed by a traiteur. Do you have any to share?

And as an added tid-bit, the video below is my favorite of all the stories Judy shared with me that day (definitely worth a watch):


Don’t give up.

Hang in there…

This is the sentiment behind the Cajun phrase “Lache Pas a La Patate” or “Don’t Let Go of the Potato”. This saying was adopted around the time of Acadian/Cajun exile from Nova Scotia in the mid-1700’s.  It was around this time that the British forcibly exiled the entire Acadian population from the communities they had established in Acadia, Canada.  There were roughly 10,000 people deported.  Some fled south by foot and others were shipped on boats.  Most ended up in southern Louisiana, beginning their new lives as tenant farmers.

I’ve begun to immerse myself in the Cajun-book-world…some of them titled:  The Cajuns; Americanization of a People and Cajuns and Their Acadian Ancestors, by Shane K. Bernard; A Great and Noble Scheme, by John Mack Faragher; and Cajun Country, by Barry Jean Ancelet, Jay Edwards, and Glen Pitre.  The history/stories/traditions/rituals captured are mostly interesting to read…and inspiring. There are pieces I can relate to deeply …and pieces that meander in one ear…and out the other.  I often wonder about the people whose stories were missed.  Where were they and what were they feeling?  Engaging in the past makes the constant stimuli of modern life feel frantic and stretched thin.   I find myself appreciative of today’s luxuries and curious about what we have left behind.  The past is written in books…that I can open and close at my leisure.  Life here and now requires consistency and maneuvering.  How can we merge the two?  In this process, I hope to build the capacity to retain what is relevant and lose what can be lost.  I can only hold so much.  I suppose creative variations and choices of which pieces to revere are for each one of us to decide in our own time.

The peril of a people has the great capacity to shift perspective.  Not always, but sometimes, it conjures up deep emotion.  ‘I wonder what it must have been like’…sits like a question in my mind.  I imagine feelings of separation and fear, surrender and faith.  I know I’m scratching the surface when I read these stories of the past…so in order to understand them more deeply, I try narrating them close to my life at present.  I’m curious how many people, at some point in their life, decide to trace steps back to their roots?  The most common response I’ve received from the opening of this project to my community is the desire of folks to explore their own roots and foster remembrance/appreciation for their particular ancestries.  This is powerful.  And awesome.  Living in a world that all too often translates value into languages of efficiency, income, and status, it is refreshing to honor my own (and witness others’) desires to learn, re-learn, re-claim and venerate our heritages.  I feel certain that a different type of value dwells in these choices to make life (re)appear. And when there happen to be no choices, perhaps this is when we can denote the most value:  learning from that which is dead.   It is then we may ask…where, when, how and do we make it/us alive again?

When I hear the phrase “Lache Pas a La Patate”, I remember what it feels like to be taken away from a home and forced to live somewhere else.  I think about the friendships, communities, music and art that form out of these expulsions…and the immense amounts of beauty that pour out of that strife.  Sure, we are all different and violence is played out and negotiated in a billion ways…but even through this separation, our collective memory retains and replays.  Within these memories, we might be offered opportunities to express our actions into delicate patterns, or sporadic moments of new artistry.

I absolutely love it when a friend shares a food dish from an old-time recipe, or a song is flooded with lyrics that tap into roots that ride deeper.  I often imagine myself, my body, as being woven by colorful threads of experience, history, tales, and people I’ve met.  Sure, I’m in there somewhere…but the threads are quite bright.  Right now all I can seem to think about is how I want to hear about all of your stories, too… The Jewish, African and Puerto Rican…the German, Polish and English…the Cherokee, Peruvian, Australian, and Potawatomi.  I might be staring at another project in face…

…one inch at a time.