LAKE CHARLES, LA (KPLC) - In south Louisiana, we are all familiar with Mardi Gras and the basic ingredients that make up a good gumbo, but a centuries-old healing tradition remains a mystery to many. Even with modern advances in medicine, Cajun faith healing hasn't died.
Through the bayous, marshes and prairies of Louisiana, traiteurs or faith healers, have stood the test of time. Barry Ancelet, Ph.D. with the University of Louisiana-Lafayette has spent the past 35 years studying Cajun culture, including the shy tradition of faith healing. "Faith healers were an integrated part of society," he says, "they were available to help people get through difficult situations and these are practices that in some cases go back thousands and thousands of years."
Much like the food our region prides itself on, there are many flavors that go into making up the practices of traiteurs. "There were European shamans, African what is disparagingly called witch doctors or actually shamans," says Ancelet, "and there were medicine men in Native American communities."
These three people groups and their belief systems merged into what is now "faith healing," a tradition involving the oral transmission of knowledge and power. Ancelet says, "Basically the same notion that a person could have a physiological effect on someone who was hurt or ill by interceding in various ways."
The intercession is a series of prayers or chants passed down through generations, typically within a family. When Helene Boudreaux's 85-year-old aunt was ready to share her prayers, Boudreaux was ready to learn them. "I'd go to her house and she would tell me what they were," she says, "they were all Indian and French and it's like chants - they call them prayers, but they're like chants."
This rural tradition distances itself from witchcraft and voodoo, even though the healing prayers of traiteurs in the middle ages resulted in their own deaths. "A lot of people were burned for witchcraft or heresy because they did these things," says Ancelet.
Boudreaux says treating is spirit-filled from God - not through any other power. "My old aunt used to say, 'Helene, every time you pray on somebody, God's going to put his hands on you,'" says Boudreaux, "she said 'always tell the people you don't heal, God does, you're just the go-between.'"
Historically it was said that the prayers wouldn't be effective if they crossed over a body of water. Whether that was meant to keep the prayers within a community or the water did actually have an impact is still not known today. "I think actually what that was about," says Ancelet, "is that you don't treat people across the bayou - you treat people on your side of the bayou. You treat your own community."
That might be what's kept traiteurs from seeking the spotlight - keeping what they believe to be their God-given gifts under wraps with those near and dear in their own communities.
*If you're wondering what exactly traiteurs can treat and how it's done, you don't want to miss part two of this special Healthcast when we'll take you to the home of Helene Boudreaux as she shares her stories of healing. That's Tuesday, February 23rd at 6:00 P.M. and Wednesday, February 24th at 5:20 A.M.