French Louisiana Traiteurs
By Julia Swett
I was born and raised on the prairies of Acadiana, the northern part of "Cajun Country" in southwest Louisiana. My parents had moved to Evangeline Parish after their wedding in 1972, where they were known as "les américains," as non-Cajuns were called. By the time my sister and I were born, they had achieved some measure of social acceptance in this close-knit rural community; we had Cajun godparents and friends, but our surname, language, and Episcopal religion always marked us as outsiders.
I grew up in a house located on my Nanny [godmother] and Parrain's [godfather's] farm, and was saturated with Cajun culture from birth. I watched my godparents work, I ate their food, and I listened to their stories—in both English and French—whenever neighbors dropped by for a visit. I remember the first time I overheard my Nanny talking about traiteurs, the local faith healers. She recalled the time her father sent for a traiteur to treat a large wart on the side of one of his pigs. The traiteur prayed over the pig, and the next day the wart disappeared. More stories followed about treating snakebites, stopping blood, and about the traiteur down the road who had died years ago with no one to replace him. I learned that one should not thank a traiteur, or the treatment would not work. But neither would the treatment work if you did not give the traiteur a gift; it could be whatever you had, fresh eggs or produce, a cake perhaps, but never money. I learned that this was God's work, though my youthful imagination associated it immediately with magic. Traiteurs have fascinated me ever since.
My interest in traiteurs deepened while in college. As a student of both Religious Studies and Cultural Anthropology, I gradually woke to the variable relationship between orthodoxy and praxis. While orthodox teaching is the product of the philosophy of the educated elite, the actual application by the common practitioner of the distilled teachings often exhibits a distinctly local flavor that necessarily emerges from the practitioner's cultural perspective. Religious belief must be integrated with cultural understanding if it is to be sustained as an existentially satisfying way of living. Thus, folk religion should not be viewed as ignorant, heretical, sectarian, or even merely syncretic (Yoder 1974). Cultural assumptions function at all levels of praxis, including that reasoning which is touted as being purely theoretical or objective. A class in medical anthropology made me realize that this is true of medicine as well as religion; there is no purely objective ground (Baer 2003, Lévi-Strauss 1963, Scheper-Hughes 1987, Yoder 1972).
Furthermore, culturally constructed patterns of organization are the only way to express subjective experience; the individual body and the social body—the symbolic template through which we conceive and relate to the world—are continuously and simultaneously informing each other (Lévi-Strauss 1963). Within folk healing systems, there are frequently "symbolic equations between conceptions of the healthy body and the healthy society, as well as the diseased body and the malfunctioning society" (Scheper-Hughes 1987: 20).
It was with these insights that I began to consider traiteurs again. Healing bodies through prayer is especially interesting in contrast with biomedicine, the dominant medical paradigm. The biomedical epistemology rests on certain assumptions such as the scientific method, the so-called Cartesian dichotomy which disjoins the body and mind, causality, and objectivity. The scientific method depends upon the manipulation of a single variable; if a discrete biological cause can be isolated, biomedicine generally ignores the social and psychological aspects of illness. Thus reduced, the sickness can then be approached objectively (Baer 2003, Scheper-Hughes 1987). "Medicalization inevitably entails a missed identification between the individual and the social bodies, and a tendency to transform the social into the biological." (Scheper-Hughes 1987:10) Biomedicine not only isolates the illness, it isolates the individual's body from the social body, in contrast to most other ethnomedical systems (Scheper-Hughes 1987).
Folk healing is often ridiculed as being unscientific by biomedical doctors, who nevertheless rely on pharmaceutical drugs that are often derived from indigenous herbal remedies (Baer 2003, Hufford 1983, Yoder 1972). Yet in rural south Louisiana, there is frequently tolerance and even support for this faith healing practice by authorities in both the Church and biomedical field (Brandon 1976, Pitre 1998). Numerous testimonials and the fact that it is still being practiced lead me to believe in the efficacy of this healing system. However, my own education has trained me to think and speak about the body, mind, and spirit as separate phenomena, and this naturally informs the structure of my questions. My task was to understand how treating and biomedicine can be integrated into a coherent system of belief. How do healers and patients negotiate the apparent gap between understanding the body as matter that is separated from spirit, and a body that can be healed through spiritual intervention? How do participants understand illness and healing? How do patients decide whether to see a biomedical practitioner or a traiteur or both?
Traiteurs, or "treaters" in English, are the traditional folk medicine healers of south Louisiana. Cajuns, Creoles, and Native Americans all participate in this Catholic healing ritual, and there are many types of traiteurs; some use herbal remedies (remèdes), gestures such as the sign of the Cross or the laying on of hands, or material objects such as a cordon—a knotted string which is tied around the affected area—in their treatments, but all of them use prayer. Faith in God's power to heal is the heart of this practice. Traiteurs can treat a wide variety of ailments, including but by no means limited to warts, sunstroke, bleeding, arthritis, and asthma, but their services are not for sale. It is usual for patients to reciprocate by offering a gift of appreciation, but not even the empty-handed will ever be refused treatment. The gift of treating is usually passed from an older traiteur to a younger person, often in the same family. Sometimes this gift can be shared with another, but sometimes passing involves the transference of the gift; slight variations in belief are common among both treaters and patients (Daigle 1991, Pitre 1998). Many of these characteristics are also typical of other Christian folk healing traditions that were likewise influenced by Native American healing practices, such as powwowing among the Pennsylvania Dutch, or Latin American curanderismo (Brandon 1976, Daigle 1991, Hufford 1983, Padilla 1997, Weskott 1969, Yoder 1972).
My fieldwork project was complicated by the fact that I suffer from social anxiety; the prospect of calling up strangers (for I did not know any traiteurs previously) and boldly requesting their time and cooperation was daunting, to say the least. Both problems—locating informants and coping with my nervousness—were greatly alleviated by Mrs. Girley Olivier, the mother of a few good friends of mine. Born in 1941, the youngest of twelve children, she grew up in a rural farming community called Bayou Potage, east of Arnaudville, Louisiana. Most of the family's medical needs were met by her mother's herbal remèdes, midwives, and traiteurs; doctors' visits were rare, reserved for crisis situations. Mrs. Girley married Mr. Boyd Olivier and moved to Arnaudville, where they raised eight children. She brought her children to both traiteurs and doctors, but she did not treat them with remèdes because she had never learned them from her mother. It was only after her children were grown that she began to gather remèdes again, and now she uses them more than any other treatment. She has had a lot of experience negotiating the apparent gap between biomedicine and faith-healing, and she is a member of my social family, which made her an ideal informant. Not only did she graciously consent to an interview, she introduced me to a traiteur, drove me to his house, and also participated in his interview. It was both reassuring and very useful to have an insider friend with me, as I could follow her social example. Since I interviewed her first, she knew what I was interested in and contributed to the questioning and clarification.
Mrs. Garley1 referred me to Mr. Sostain Lemelle, a 76-year-old traiteur from Opelousas, Louisiana. He has the gift of treating because his father died six months before he was born, and he says he can treat anything, from headache to cancer. After his father died, his mother raised him and his three sisters alone. He received a rudimentary education, but by the time he was twelve he was working in the fields with his mother and picking moss and blackberries to support his sisters and send them to school. He learned carpentry and worked two jobs for most of his adult life, saving enough money to buy land. He married and raised two daughters and a son, all three of whom have received college educations. Still a hard-working man, he now raises cows and does much of the physical labor himself. He plans to pass his gift to his daughter when he gets too old to treat. Mr. Lemelle gave me an enthusiastic welcome and more information than I expected. He needed virtually no prompting and talked freely about both treating and biomedicine. When I did ask questions, Mr. Lemelle replied with long sequences of illustrative stories rather than direct answers. Such testimonial narratives are characteristically used by folk healers and their patients to substantiate the effectiveness of vernacular medicine. I was also fortunate to witness two treatments at Mr. Lemelle's house.
I found my third informant through the grapevine, which is how one usually goes about locating a traiteur. Mrs. Girley's youngest son's neighbor has a friend who lives next door to Mr. Anatole Thibodeaux. Also in his seventies, Mr. Anatole grew up on a farm between Duson and Mire, Louisiana. When he was a child, there was only one doctor to serve the whole community, and as most people could not afford his services, they depended upon their own remèdes and the local traiteurs. Mr. Anatole worked as a painter and carpenter, and he and his wife, Mrs. Ella, raised two sons, who followed his vocation. He has been treating for about twenty-five years. He received the power to heal from a visiting Catholic priest at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Lafayette, and later received specific traitements from two traiteurs who were getting too old to treat. Though he received particular treatments, he maintains that he can heal almost anything, from cystic fibrosis to some types of cancer. He was also very generous with his time. His wife, Mrs. Ella, was present for the interview, which I did not expect, and she also has a few treatments—for hiccups, sunstroke, and moonstroke. Though she no longer practices, she contributed greatly to my understanding. In addition to the interview, I received treatment for nerves from Mr. Anatole, which was both unexpected and greatly informative.
Each of the informants invited me to their homes for the interview. There were common factors in each of the three settings. As is customary, I entered all three homes through the door in the carport, and was invariably led through the kitchen and dining area into a living area, where I was offered a comfortable seat in a stuffed rocking chair. The walls of all three homes were decorated mainly with framed pictures of relatives and religious iconography, a clear indicator of the value of religious and social relationships in these communities. Mrs. Girley's home was dominated by religious symbols such as crucifixes, rosaries, and depictions of the Virgin Mary and angels. In the homes of Mr. Lemelle and the Thibodeaux family, photographs covered the walls and spilled over onto side tables and bookshelves. These pictures were continually referred to in the course of conversation. Whenever a family member was mentioned, an identifying photograph was pointed to, or picked up and passed around.
I tape recorded each interview, but found it distracting and somewhat impolite to take notes while I was trying to listen. I tried to solicit information concerning prayers, gestures, and material items used in the course of a healing, as well as the beliefs and experiences of both the healer and the patient. My questioning was rather haphazard; I preferred to let them speak about whatever they liked, and only scrambled to produce a question when the conversation dried up. This was partly due to my shyness and the fact that they are my elders, and partly because I wanted to hear their beliefs as they naturally express them, instead of demanding that they speak in terms of my epistemological assumptions.
Each of my informants expressed a unique perspective on healing. Mrs. Girley said that she "really believes in home remedies because I like to do everything that I can before I go to the doctor. She gave me a number of home remedies and remembered many more used in her childhood. Though she does go to both traiteurs and doctors, it is only when necessary, which is infrequently. But she now provides for the majority of her healthcare needs with remèdes. She did, however, take her children to the traiteur for traditional childhood ailments such as cutting teeth, asthma, and attaché—a folk ailment in which a child's limbs cannot meet behind his back. She learned from her parents' example which sicknesses needed treatment and which needed biomedical care. One went to the traiteur for earache, sore throat, asthma, sprains, and sunstroke, but a bad cough needed a doctor's skill.
Mr. Lemelle treats himself and others, and he also receives biomedical care, because there are "some things that the doctor got to do to you." He also acknowledges multiple ways of treating, but his traitements are a form of intercessory prayer:
But you know some people pray different ways. Some people pray, they healing you. When I pray, I ask the Good Lord to heal you through my prayers. That's the one healing you. Through my prayers. Not me, I'm not healing you, it's Him. The Lord's on top of everything. And some people don't understand that. That's how come some treaters, you see, they have to stop treating. Because they would treat, and say, "I'm going to take your sickness," you know. "I'm going to heal you. I'm going to take what you got," you know. To heal you, and it would fall on them.
Mr. Lemelle then gave an example of this with a story about a mother and daughter down the road from him, both of whom had to stop treating because every time they prayed on someone, they would take the sickness onto themselves and fall ill. Then they would have to call Mr. Lemelle to come treat them.
Ella and Anatole Thibodeaux are excellent examples of this type of treater who takes on the patient's illness. Sometimes referred to as transference, it is a common technique in other folk medical systems, as well (Yoder 1972). Mrs. Ella also had to quit treating because she is too weak; her body cannot "absorb" the sickness and so she catches whatever she treats, unless the patient is a child or a weak person. They both stress that a treater must be strong to heal. Mr. Anatole told me that he is "strong like an old mule" and can heal almost anything. Because he was recovering from surgery, he initially told me that he was not strong enough to treat, but apparently he felt well enough to treat me. Perhaps my ailment required less energy than other, more serious maladies. When describing his gift, he does seem to suggest that there are differences in the strengths of both various illnesses and healing gifts:
ET: When he treats you, he feels what you feel.
AT: I got power. I have a power that I can put on a person. If it's bad, I have to push power on them. If it's not as bad, then I pull down on it, just enough to heal. Them other treaters, they don't have that kind of power. When they treat you, they don't feel it.
ET: Not everybody treats alike.
AT: And you don't need to tell me. When I get where that pain's at, I can tell you. I can feel it, where the pain's at, I can feel it in my hands. I can feel the pain in my hands. It's like electricity where the pain's at.
Mr. Anatole also emphasizes the significance of feeling the patient's pain. While Mr. Lemelle did not verbalize this same sentiment directly, during the treatments that I witnessed, he repeatedly asked his patients about the location and the nature of the pain for which they were asking treatment. So while Mr. Lemelle acts an intercessory for the healing power of God, and Mr. Anatole has an embodied power to heal, they are both concerned with how the patient feels.
Doctors, on the other hand, have a different role. They are typically associated with surgery, medicine and hospitals, and are somewhat suspect: they cost a lot of money, and they cannot always heal you. Medicine was deemed largely unnecessary and oftentimes dangerous by all but Mrs. Ella. Mrs. Girley prefers her remèdes to medicine, but she said that if a headache lasted for a few days she would consider taking an aspirin, and she will go the doctor when it gets to be "too much." Mr. Lemelle even refused anesthesia during an eye operation on the grounds that it would make him sleep too long. When asked to articulate the difference between doctors and traiteurs, Mr. Anatole said, "Doctors are guessing, and a healer, he's going to treat you right away with no medicine." Medicine can cause both sickness and dependency, and it is often quite expensive. Surgery may sometimes be necessary, but it is best to go to a treater before one actually has the operation. Both treaters recounted many stories about successful treatments that rendered a scheduled surgery unnecessary. So while both biomedicine and treating can heal the body, traitement is generally seen as safer and more reliable, and biomedical intervention is viewed as a last resort.
But what causes illness? Mrs. Girley and the Thibodeaux specifically linked a healthy body to a healthy attitude or mind:
JS: What makes us sick?
AT: And their bodies might be weaker than other bodies.
The only time the Thibodeaux mentioned causes of disease was in response to this direct question. Mrs. Girley expounded a bit more: "I really think sickness comes from us being under stress. Stress, poor attitude, being on the negative side." She also mentioned the importance of a good diet and the risks of smoking and drinking. When asked what makes people sick, Mr. Lemelle seemed to avoid the question:
Well, you know, sickness. They got a lot of people, you know, that come. They think other people making them sick. No. You know the Good Lord carry the cross. And we got to carry our cross. And there's all the things that we did in our life—and a lot of things that—to do with that, you know.
Perhaps he was not avoiding the question, but the assumptions contained within it. Though an examination of Mr. Lemelle's treatment stories reveals his understanding, similar to that of Mrs. Girley, that fear, worry, medicine, smoking, and drinking can all contribute to illness, he generally does not speak of causes. Like other varieties of folk healers, these traiteurs do not disconnect a person's body from the rest of his being; psychic health is clearly interrelated with physical health (Padilla 1997, Scheper-Hughes 1987).
While doctors focus on the cause of disease as the rational way to approach the problem of curing the disease, the traiteurs I interviewed are concerned with understanding how the patient feels. Traiteurs do not diagnose; they never spoke of bacteria, viruses, or of any other objective cause of disease. (Aside from medicine, smoking, and drinking, that is. It would be interesting to pursue the significance of these apparent exceptions.) Indeed, for Mr. Lemelle, both the cause and the cure—which is the work of the Good Lord—lie outside of the realm of his activity. Illnesses are approached by their symptoms, as is typical in folk medicine (Yoder 1972). For example, all of my informants used the term asthma to refer to all breathing difficulties; there do not appear to be any distinctions between asthma, allergies, emphysema, or other causes of the symptom. Knowing the cause is not as important as understanding the patient's experience of illness.
Another significant aspect of the cultural matrix in which treating takes place is the perspective on suffering and pain. It is not considered to be anomalous as in biomedicine. Mr. Lemelle regards pain as part of the cross that we have to carry in life; it is naturally occurring and needs only to be suffered and treated. Although Mrs. Girley spoke lightly of her headaches, her daughter Sam informed me that she in fact suffers frequently from terrible migraines. All of my informants, with the possible exception of Mrs. Ella, are willing to experience pain up to the point that it becomes debilitating and they are no longer able to function normally in the community. This acceptance of pain has also been noted in other rural communities that participate in folk medicine. Illness is not necessarily signified by pain, but rather by a disruption in social roles—one is not sick unless one cannot work (Yoder 1972).
While the beliefs of individual treaters may differ somewhat in detail, their traitements follow a distinct pattern. Treatment always begins with a request for help. The healer must know for whom he is praying; he will always make sure that he knows the patient's full name. The patient explains his subjective experience of suffering to the treater, who may ask for clarifications, such as the exact location of a pain. Again, the traiteur is interested in the nature of the suffering, not the nature of the disease. The treatment is performed three times; each round consists of silent prayer in French, and the laying on of hands. They each have a unique style of passing their hands over the suppliant's body and their prayers are no doubt different. Mr. Lemelle's prayers consist of the usual prayers Catholic children learn before their First Communion. The prayers are chosen according to how the Spirit moves him. Mr. Anatole's prayers, on the other hand, must be repeated verbatim in order for them to work, exactly how they were passed to him. The distinction between these two approaches is likely related to the relationship each treater has with his gift—intercession versus the possession of a healing power. The actual content of the prayers is known only to traiteurs; passing the prayers also means passing the gift.
The time in between treatments is spent visiting; social ties are established or renewed. Talk generally centers on successful treatment stories and family. Numerous examples are given of similar illnesses and the treatments that healed them; this establishes the treater's credentials (David 2005). The repetition of these stories also functions to reassure the patient that suffering is a normal part of the human experience, and that God can heal suffering. They also locate the patient specifically within the social framework, renewing that community relationship which is threatened by illness (David 2005, Lévi-Strauss 1963, Scheper-Hughes 1987, Yoder 1972). After the treatment, the treater also keeps patients in his prayers, and encourages them to keep in touch, keep him informed of their health, and to return any time they need his prayers.
I was fortunate that Mr. Anatole felt strong enough to treat me for the anxiety I felt during the interview. Mrs. Ella mentioned that her husband treated her for "nerves," and I impulsively asked for treatment. They had been very friendly, but my anxiety over the unfamiliar social setting was still quite strong. I shared this with them, explaining how I had struggled with anxiety for years. I admit that I had completely forgotten that Mr. Anatole had told me he was too weak from surgery to treat, but he smiled at me and generously agreed.
I had never been treated before, and questions flooded my mind. Would it work? Would my expectations affect the outcome? What were my expectations anyway? Must I have faith in it for it to work? Mr. Anatole and Mr. Lemelle did not think faith was always necessary, but Mrs. Ella and Mrs. Girley did. Did I disbelieve but nevertheless hope? What in the world was I doing in these people's house? Several more questions along these lines passed through my head in the space of a few seconds, but I had no time to organize my thoughts and consolidate an approach. Mr. Anatole made sure he had my name right, and then asked me to stand. He prayed and passed his hands over me, starting at my head, and going down either side of my body, all the way to my feet. It took about a minute. During that time, I closed my eyes, peeking every now and then, too confused to think of anything other than: "What is going on?" My body started swaying gently as his hands passed down my sides. Mrs. Ella noticed, and chuckled. It felt as if he had shucked me of the tension in my body. As soon as it was over I burst out laughing because I was so surprised; I really felt good. I was much more relaxed and at ease than I had been only moments before. As I sat down again and made myself comfortable, Mr. Anatole said, "See what I mean?" Then he remarked that I was more nervous than I let on. He was right.
Mr. Anatole then narrated accounts of successful treatments for about ten minutes. During the next two treatments, I prayed as well, mindful of what Mr. Lemelle had told me: "You've got to help yoursel . . . you've got to pray, and ask the Good Lord to help you, too." Mrs. Girley had also confided to me that she prayed during her treatments. I felt increasingly relaxed with each session. After the last treatment, talk about healing died out; I found myself poring through photograph albums with Mrs. Ella and getting to know all about the Thibodeaux family. I left the interview feeling that these were my friends. Overall it was an astonishing and delightful experience, and I will not hesitate to return for treatment should I feel the need. In fact, Mr. Anatole told me that though he could ease it for a while, he could not cure anxiety, and I should come back before it got too bad again.
This treatment experience changed my perspective drastically. It transformed me from an outsider to an insider. This insider status was based on two things: a shared religious faith and experience, and my incorporation into the Thibodeaux's social family. Though I am not Catholic, I am a Christian, and so I was able to both understand and participate in a ritual that is essentially a lay reenactment of the central Christian mystery.
All of my informants understand treating to be a fundamentally spiritual practice. Mr. Anatole said that treating "is important because it is God's work." Mrs. Girley told me that she felt that the practice of treating is directly linked to the Biblical tradition of healing in the name of Christ. There is strong scriptural precedent for it: "And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:1,8). Jesus' command to his disciples is chronicled in all four Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles relate many stories of disciples healing the afflicted in the name of Jesus.
Mr. Lemelle emphasized the intercessory nature of his gift several times; he prays and the Good Lord heals. Intercessory prayer is a spiritual practice which acts out the relationship exemplified by Jesus Christ, whereby he interceded for humans by sharing in their suffering; traitement is an intimate experience of shared suffering. Intercessory prayer "knows no boundaries and extends to one's enemies" (Catechism 1994). Patients know that a traiteur will never turn them away for any reason, and furthermore, will care for them in a way that no doctor will. "To be a traiteur, you can't get mad, and everybody's the same person to you" (Lemelle 2007). The refusal of payment and thanks can also be religiously motivated: in loving one's neighbor, one sacrifices self-centered, prudential concerns for the sake of moral obligations.
Treating must be understood in the context of religious belief and practice; it is not simply a medical system (Hufford 1983, Yoder 1972). Christianity is largely a matter of relationship: human relationship to God through Jesus, and human relationships to each other (Matthew 22:36-39, John 14:6). It is in loving our neighbors that we develop our relationship with God. Jesus exemplified this in his sacrifice on the cross. "He calls his disciples to "take up [their] cross and follow [him]", for "Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example so that [we] should follow in his steps" (Catechism 1994). Christians commemorate the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, a communal act. It is in sharing this meal that participants renew themselves, in becoming "living members of the Body of [Christ]" (Book of Common Prayer 1990, Catechism 1994).
Similarly, many folk healing systems approach the individual body as being continuous, or integrated, with the social body. When illness manifests in the individual body, it is indicative of a lack of integration with the social body (David 2005, Lévi-Strauss 1963, Yoder 1972). My informants considered themselves to be ill, not when they were merely in pain, but when they could no longer function normally in the community. In the healing event, the treater and the patient must renegotiate their relationships within the context of the social body (Lévi-Strauss 1963). Through the narration of related treatment stories, the individual's experience is located within the communal experience of suffering. Communal prayer reintegrates the individual within the social framework. Treating is a religious lay ritual that renews the social body, much as the Sacrament of the Eucharist renews the body of Christ (Catechism 1994).
Strauss 1963). Through the narration of related treatment stories, the individual's experience is located within the communal experience of suffering. Communal prayer reintegrates the individual within the social framework. Treating is a religious lay ritual that renews the social body, much as the Sacrament of the Eucharist renews the body of Christ (Catechism 1994).
1. In keeping with Southern customs of address, I always precede the names of my elders with a "Mr." or "Mrs." to indicate respect. In formal relationships, it is proper to use the surname, hence, I refer to Sostain Lemelle as "Mr. Lemelle". However, Girley Olivier is a family friend; this less formal relationship allows the use of her forename in respectful address. Though my relationship with the Thibodeaux began formally, the intimate experience of shared prayer formed a more personal social relationship in which "Mr. Anatole" and "Mrs. Ella" became more suitable terms of address.
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