Creole Healers and Herbs

In the parishes of southwest Louisiana, generations of Creole people have used little-known plants for treating a host of ailments. Today, they’re making a resurgence.

Growing up in southern Louisiana, it wasn’t unusual to hear the older adults in my family speaking French. My mom would bellow from the back door, “Viens manger,” imploring me and my two older brothers to come inside to eat dinner. My grandparents, who all grew up with French as a first language, still use it to communicate with younger generations, myself included, who learned it in immersion programs.

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Intertwined with this region’s rich linguistic heritage is an enduring adherence — and wide acceptance — of age-old Creole practices practically forgotten in many other parts of the country. Once-isolated and rural communities still engage in medieval customs, such as Courir de Mardi Gras, and eat regional food staples, such as gumbo, that date back to when the United States was hardly an idea. However, as pharmaceutical companies have come to dominate health care, one tradition has been largely forgotten: knowledge of local medicinal plants.

“It’s just about lost,” says Mary Perrin of the Lafayette Parish Master Gardeners Association (LPMGA) in southwest Louisiana. Perrin says Louisiana Creole people from not so long in the past — only a few decades ago — commonly looked to the land to heal what ailed them. Europeans arriving in the colony of Louisiana had adopted the practices from some of the Native American tribes living nearby, such as the Atakapa Ishak and Chitimacha tribes, until they became a part of Creole culture. (See “Creole People and Culture,” Page 46.) These plants, little-known to those outside Louisiana, were said to quell a fever, reduce a cough, or numb pain. Often, the keepers of this knowledge were staples in the community, called traiteurs, which means “healers.” They treated people within their community through Roman Catholic prayers, and they could prescribe local medicinal plants that could reportedly cure a host of issues. It’s said a traiteur would heal maladies, such as a sprained ankle, or illnesses, such as the flu.

Traditionally, the art of healing was passed down from a traiteur to an apprentice. Perrin, 72, is a traiteur herself, having learned the healing practice from an older man about 20 years ago. “He taught me the prayers, the traditions,” she says. “Since they are handed down orally, the traditions tend to vary.” That means one traiteur might prescribe drinking tea steeped in local herbs three times a day, while a traiteur in another community might recommend drinking the tea five times a day.

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