Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"All I Depend on Is the Lord": Healing Words and Silence in Cajun Traitement

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

"All I Depend on Is the Lord": Healing Words and Silence in Cajun Traitement

Article excerpt

We enter Mr. Mason Gaudet's home not from the front door, but from the door situated on the carport that leads directly into the semicircle of chairs fairly common in most Cajun homes on the prairie. I introduce myself while Sandra and her husband wait to explain the reason for their visit. Sandra and I share an interest in traiteurs and have come to interview Mr. Gaudet. Sandra's husband drove us out to his rural native Acadia Parish on this spring evening. We listen to Mr. Gaudet talk, and he explains: "I guess it's a good thing 'cause you holding the old peoples' tradition in that [traitement]. But me, all I depend on is the Lord."1

Sandra also has problems with sinus headaches and intends to ask for a traitement. The evening unfolds like a veillée-a visit-until Sandra asks for the traitement. At this moment, Mr. Gaudet expertly places his hands on her head, whispering over her. Twice more, he repeats his whispering.

Months later, a member of my dissertation committee suggests that I analyze the verbal exchange from that evening. I realize the most important component was silence.

TRAITEMENT, FAITH HEALING OR "TREATING" as it is called in English, has often been written about as "mysterious" medicine. Rooted in Acadian French history and drawing on other cultures, traiteurs, or treaters, practice a form of healing that is based on verbal interaction, including knowledge of prayers. Treating, the term most commonly used in describing folk healing in Louisiana, originated in the many rural communities populated by diverse cultural groups since the eighteenth century. Traitements, the series of prayers used in the healing traditions, have existed throughout Cajun history as a means to help others in the community with illness. Participants learn the protocol surrounding traitement from family members and, more recently, also through popular press articles. Participants must request traitement, cannot thank the traiteur, and traitement is believed not to "cross" a body of running water, although some traiteurs do treat over the phone.

In this article, I will provide an outline of the verbal protocol of treatment that I documented between 1996 and 1999 during fieldwork in the parishes of southwest Louisiana.2 The discussions about traitements were with 32 individuals who called themselves traiteurs, ranging from 41 to 90 years of age, and with participants during fieldwork who had called upon a traiteur. Traitement through the hands of a traiteur occurs typically during communication between two individuals, with God as intermediary in the communicative event. The goal of a traitement is to heal illness: the traiteur's obligation is to exchange words in prayer form for illness, and the patient's obligation is to offer a giftin the form of food goods donated later, money donation leftbehind, and so forth, that is, a culturally defined exchange for service. A patient's path to re-establishing balance as a social being and to a healthy state is through reciprocating with a material exchange/gift. Here, I will use Dell Hymes's (1972, 1974, 1989) framework for a communicative event, applying the components of a communicative event to traitement; I argue for the connection between means of speech or speech style and a pattern of relationship that is reflective of Cajun society.3 Traiteurs use treatments to connect with the area's past history of small farming communities, or voisinages, through a sophisticated display of reciprocity and to articulate their relationship to a local notion of community. This pattern is an indication of a cultural level of addressing illness previously overlooked. Further, I set the context for treatments in the context of common knowledge shared by the broader community.

Traiteur and Traitement

The traiteur or traiteuse receives prayers from elder family or community members for various ailments, and thus gains a reputation for having traitement for certain illnesses. …

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