Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Traiteur

With nearly 60,000 visitors in two months at the George Rodrigue exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2008, we received hundreds of letters, all positive, mostly from people who prior to NOMA knew little about the scope of George’s career. As a result, they were surprised at how much they enjoyed the show. There was one exception, however: an angry email from a woman who accused George of promoting voodoo and black magic through his art. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the loup-garou and early Blue Dog paintings that bothered her, “a good Christian woman,” but rather the painting Doc Moses, Cajun Traiteur (1974, 48x36, oil on canvas)

Ever sensitive to an offense, I thought about her words as I played docent to thousands of area school children. I looked for signs of damage in their faces as I told them about the Cajun faith healers and shared this form of mysticism with their young minds. Would they refuse a dose of bad tasting medicine next time they have the flu? Would they lay their hands on a friend’s bad cut, rather than go for help? I recalled playing ‘light as a feather’ as a kid, but I don’t recall any adults levitating their friends.

And then I thought that maybe it’s like Santa Claus or positive thinking or even Jesus to some (or for that matter, maybe it’s like voodoo!), and it allows us that suspension of those things we can touch and see in favor of those things we just know, or those things that we want to understand, like where we come from in birth and where we go in death, why we suffer, and what our dreams mean, or how to explain a déjà vu. Maybe Doc Moses is okay because, like ghosts and heaven and reincarnation, we want to believe and, if we really do believe, then it’s real.

"At the birth of Christ, the cry resounded through the ancient world, ‘Great Pan is dead.’ The animal mind was about to be subdued. Christ’s mission was to prepare the way for floral consciousness." (Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume, p. 325)

A traiteur is a Cajun folk doctor with a special, inherited gift for healing one ailment. In George’s painting, Doc Moses heals earaches. He pours a ring of salt around the patient and touches his ears. Amazingly, only the healer must believe. The patient’s skepticism does not affect the cure.

George also knew of a woman in New Iberia famous for treating warts. She concentrated on one wart a day and could even work over the telephone if you described to her the exact location of the growth. However, the power did not work across water, and so if you lived on the other side of the Bayou Teche, you had to cross the bridge (or take a pirogue) to the opposite bank to make your call.

George’s cousin Catherine tried healing sprains after finding Tant Git’s prayer book, which doubled as her healer’s manual. Magitte, George’s mother’s oldest sister, was born in 1880 and inherited the book from her father. But somehow the power never passed to Catherine. Ironically, she became a nurse, healing in more conventional ways, a practice she gave up because her kind heart cannot bear to see suffering. (pictured, Catherine and Susan)

Catherine reminds me of Snow White, with the birds twittering around her head and the animals playing at her feet. During one visit to her home in New Iberia, a noise startled me in her powder room. When I pulled back the shower curtain, I found baby bunnies in the bathtub. (pictured Susan, Uncle Clifton, John Edward, Uncle Emile (from the Aioli Dinner), and Catherine)

Today Catherine and her husband Victor own Victor’s Cafeteria in downtown New Iberia, and the idea that she’s a ‘healer’ is long gone (although no doubt her delicious crawfish pies and pralines have cured a few ailments). She and her sisters Susan and Cheryl, along with their brother John Edward are the closest thing George has to siblings (for more on this, see the blogs How Baby George Became an Artist and Tombs in the Life and Art of George Rodrigue).

And indeed George does complain about Catherine as though she is his sister, most notably regarding the sign at Victor’s Cafeteria that says “Detective Robicheaux eats here,” based on author James Lee Burke’s famous character. George of course thinks the sign should tout a different local celebrity! (pictured, me, Cheryl, Dana (married to John Edward), Susan, Catherine)

(pictured, Catherine, George's mother Marie, George, Jacques at Victor's Cafeteria for Marie's 90th Birthday party, 1995)

I’ve never met a traiteur nor witnessed a healing. George saw it many times. His Tant Git, to heal a sprain, licked her thumb and traced three small crosses with it on the injury while whispering secret words from her prayer book.

One day John Edward, Catherine’s older brother, asked Tant Git (pictured below, 1955) about the process and how she heals. At ten years old, he was convinced that he should be the next family traiteur. (light as a feather…)

She agreed to share her secret, as long as he promised to tell no one. Meanwhile, John Edward had a secret of his own: he planned on a healing demonstration at school for show-n-tell. Magitte showed him the ritual and said the secret words out loud. John Edward, not speaking French, didn’t realize that Tant Git fooled him, as he repeated to his class three times in French: ‘dog poo, pig poo’….. But his teacher, who understood French, was horrified!

George has painted several traiteurs over the years. If you follow this blog, you might remember Evergreen Lake as a Native American model for the healer from the story Rosalea Murphy, the Pink Adobe, and Paintings of Evergreen Lake. He hasn’t addressed the subject on canvas in quite sometime, but he’s been known to entertain at dinner parties, particularly over injuries, with three little crosses and the magic words…

Caca Chien, Caca Cochon, Caca Chien, Caca Cochon, Caca Chien, Caca Cochon….

Sounds like voodoo to me-

Wendy

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10 comments:

  1. Hello, Wendy Rodrigue. It is a nice story,this traiteur and healing.
    After few visits in New Orleans, I bought a Blue Dog in September 2010, the one across the bayou, and I came back in Switzerland with it, pardon, HIM. And I can testify than looking at it cures of the blues whoever sees it. Je ne sais pas s'il y a du voodoo lä-dedans, mais il nous rend heureux. Merci encore.
    Arlette Eastgate-Apothéloz

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  2. Many thanks for writing in, Arlette. I'm delighted to know George has a fan and I have a reader in Switzerland!

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  3. This is amazing, reading your words re: Traiteurs, as my Relaxation Therapy friend Nellie Harrington is studying the history of female traiteurs in Louisiana! At about the same time, I stumbled onto Glen Pitre's film on Treitures, done in 1998, on a late-night showing on Louisiana Public Broadcasting, a couple of months ago...what an enlightening film!

    Again, so nice to talk and e-mail with you, Wendy, and may you and George have a Fantastic and Relaxing vacation!!!

    Richard, in Lafayette

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  4. I live in California. My youngest daughter had a wart on her hand when she was a teen. I took her to the doctor, and he burned it off with hot ice, and it left a scar. Later it came back. I did not have enough money to take her to the doctor again, and I did not want her to have a worse scar. I took some Lourdes water and prayed over it, and it went away. Many years later, when she was an adult, she got a wart again on her hand. I had some water that she had brought back from the Fatima Shrine in Portugal. I took that and prayed over it, and the wart again left. Recently my two-year-old granddaughter had a small benign tumor on her eye. The doctor said it might go away on its own, and if not they would have to lance it. It was not going away, so my daughter and I kept putting holy water on it and praying. It went down and away, so prayer does work on such things.

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  5. That's a wonderful story, Anonymous. Many thanks for sharing -

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  6. I've had several mystical experiences in Chicago with healing with nurses I've met that were African American. I was raised Catholic, but have been interested in all types of animistic religions for years. Both of the times the nurses and I got into personal conversations outside of the regular patient variety. They always asked are you a Christian? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ...I always say yes. Both times they laid hands on me, and I felt hot, very warm and even if it's the power of suggestion, something magical was happening, whether it was just connection of souls, desire to be well, or truly The Lord working. Makes me a big believer in metaphysics.

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  7. I remember the family gathering at the Rodrique's because I was there. I believe all the brother and sisters of the Courreges were there and a picture of them was taken along the drive with Taut Git that you show in the picture. She healed my brother Ronnie who had a wart that couldn't be removed. That was the great days in New Iberia Louisiana. George's best work was his 'monster t-shirts' he would do for the neighborhood kids.

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    1. Hi Anon-- Thank you for writing in. If you look under the topic "EARLY YEARS AND FAMILY" on the right side of this page, check the post "Art School, 1962-1967." Within, you'll find the photograph you mention of the Courrege siblings. Also, see the post "Creature from the Black Lagoon," also under EARLY YEARS AND FAMILY, for a look back at the monster t-shirts. Best to you and your family- Wendy

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  8. Mrs.Wendy Rodrigue, I so thoroughly enjoyed your story about "Traiteurs" and the comments following it.
    I have always loved your husband George's paintings...
    I remember traiteurs in my younger days, during the 1950s. My aunt Flavie would treat for warts...I never had any warts so I can't personally attest to her treatments. We had an African-American friend who would come help my mom during pregnancies who treated for sprains. One of my brothers had it done and he said it worked.
    Your story brought back so many memories I hadn't thought about for more years than I care to count...lol
    Thank you so much for sharing this story.

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  9. What a treasure this was to find! I was doing on-line research on my ancestry and hoping to find some information regarding faith healers. My grandfather tied teething strings, took the pain out of burns and bought warts for a quarter. Growing up it was just a common thing and i never thought to ask how or why he had such a gift. Now I wish he were still around to answer. When this website appeared as a match for my research I was doubly intrigued. You see my daughter met George years ago and drew her own blue dog which he promptly autographed. Icing on the cake of the information I found here...my Grandfather, the traiteur, was named Moses. Please let me know if any prints or even postcards of this great work are available as I would be overjoyed to own one.

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