Bill Vincent is the director of the Alamance County History Museum. In 1981, his anthropological work led him to join the Tukano tribe in the wilds of the Amazon Rain Forest. He tells his stories for the first time Aug. 16.

Most people know Bill Vincent as the director of the Alamance County History Museum. What they don’t realize is that he once spent an entire year in the presence of a tribe in Brazil.

Vincent is speaking about his adventures in the Amazon for the first time at a fundraising event for the museum. The talk is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 16. Participants will join Vincent for dinner at Michelle’s Kitchen and Table at 2641 S Church St., Burlington, and listen to his discussion, “Genital Aprons and Fish Jelly,” about the culture and customs of the Tukano tribe.

“A lot of people in the community see me primarily as the local museum director and they know very little about this other aspect of things that I am involved in,” he said.

Vincent, who is an anthropologist, received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and did fieldwork in Africa and Central America before deciding to work in South America.

“I knew that I wanted to work with basically what we call a neolithic technology group, a group that had not been altered a great deal from the initial condition that they were basically in,” Vincent said.

Vincent first spent a year in Rio de Janeiro working at a federal museum before joining the Tukano tribe, or “daxsea mahsa,” at the Vaupes-Papuri Rivers of northwest Amazon in 1981. He did what he called a “participant observation” and worked on his doctoral dissertation while living with the tribe.

“You are observing in an objective way at the same time that you are participating actively in their day-to-day activities and try to immerse yourself as much as you can in their cultural setting,” Vincent said. “Participatory experience is important to understanding what is going on.”

Vincent described trying to learn the Tukanoan language, which is different due to its diversity in normal sentence structure.

“We tend to think of a situation where you have a subject and a verb and it has adjectives around it. Often times, in their language the verb comes first and the subject comes later in the sentence. It is a totally different way of constructing a sentence, so it took me a good while to begin to be able to speak the language,” Vincent said.

Before going to the tribe, Vincent said he studied language tapes but found they could not be completely helpful, as the different villages within the tribe had different dialects.

Vincent also described how the villages had no electricity, no heat and different living conditions. The entire village, consisting of 150 to 250 people, lived in one longhouse, or “bassa’a wi’i,” which stands for “house of the sacred dance.”

“They believe under ritual conditions the house essentially becomes a temple,” Vincent said.

The longhouse had two entrances — one in the back and one in the front — as well as a section for ritual activity, a set of individual family compartments and a back area for communal cooking. The food was collected from the surrounding area, whether it was from their local garden or monkey stew.

“They are eating what was naturally available in that particular environment,” Vincent said.


Fish jelly

One significant experience that Vincent participated in was what he called fish jelly.

“The fish jelly is one of those foods that they ate, which I tried to eat but was the most disgusting thing I have ever tried to eat,” Vincent said.

The process of creating fish jelly takes place over several months. The tribe waits until a large amount of fish swim upstream to spawn in the Vaupes-Papuri River. The men construct fish traps and wait until the fish get caught. They then jump into the trap and grab the fish and club them over the head. The women then gut the fish.

“They put them in these pits, pits that are lined with banana leaves,” Vincent said. “They leave them in the pit covered over with earth for about three months.”

The fish rot and become filled with maggots. After three months, the tribe uncover the fish and hold a festival celebrating the fish jelly.

“I call it fish jelly because it is a gelatinous mass,” Vincent said. “They get in there and they scoop it out by the handful. It is the worst smell you can imagine. They love it. It is considered a delicacy.”


Manhood ritual

A more complex situation Vincent experienced was the men’s role in the tribe. Every day, the men would go hunt using blowguns and darts and bows and arrows. Vincent laughed when he recalled that the men decided not to let him use any of the weapons and he instead followed behind and carried their kills.

However, before a man could even begin hunting, he had to go through an intense male initiation rite.

“Boys are said not to see, hear or understand anything properly as a young boy,” Vincent said. “They are said to be, in a sense, closed up when they are born.”

To begin the ritual, the boys, between ages 11 and 13, are separated from the local village and taken to an initial house that is built deep in the forest away from the village. The male adults who take the boys dress in costumes made out of tree bark cloth and literally take the boys in their sleep from their parents.

“The boys are blindfolded so they really don’t know where they are being taken and they are kept blindfolded until the time that they get to the initiation house,” Vincent said. “Then they go through a whole set of rituals that are intended to literally and metaphorically open them up in a variety of ways.”

One of these rituals is to rub hot capcisum pepper juice into several orifices on the boys’ bodies.

“In a real strong sense, they are being opened up,” Vincent said. “They say to these boys ‘Now that we have opened you up, we can begin to teach you the things — you will be able to understand these things that we are planning to do that are going to turn you into an adult person, an adult man.’”

Another ritual is teaching the boys an entirely new language so that they can converse among themselves without the women being able to know what they are saying.

The boys are also taught rituals and lore, they are exposed to sacred objects never seen by the general population and they are taught to hunt with a blowgun. These boys are also eligible for marriage after they return to the village.

At the end of their initiation process, which takes roughly three to four years to complete, the boys must be symbolically closed up.

“They have designs painted on their body that replicate basketry designs,” Vincent said. “A basket is a series of controlled openings and closings. A basket is neither fully opened nor fully closed. They get these designs painted on their body that mimic those designs, mimic the weaving of a basket.”

The boys, now men, return to the village and are given a genital apron.

While the boys undergo their transformation, the girls in the village also experience a transformation and receive their own genital apron.


Womanhood ritual

Vincent said he did not have as much experience with the women as he did with the men because he is a man.

“I was excluded from a lot of the women’s activities,” Vincent said.

He did say that the Tukano believe that what culture does for a man, nature does for a woman. This enlightenment comes about when a girl experiences her first menstrual cycle. When this happens, the girl is taken to a special hut where she must remain until her cycle is complete. She is not allowed to prepare any food and she is waited on by other women who are not currently in their cycle. These women prepare and serve the girl food.

“She basically lounges around in this small hut,” Vincent said.

At this point, the girl is given a genital apron and it has a specific design called “wahtin oa’peko” or “the knees of Wahtin.” The apron has a broken, crooked design, like a broken knee.

“From that point on, they learn that no longer can they marry anybody but that they have to marry the person that is appropriate for them from the standpoint of their culture. They assume their adult roles as the gardeners in the community,” Vincent said.

The gardens were a huge part of the tribe, as 75 percent of the food came from the gardens, Vincent said. It was also where men and women would meet to conceive and where women would give birth.

Admission is $40 per person and includes dinner at Michelle's Kitchen & Table. Deadline to make reservations is Aug. 11. Reservations can be made by calling 336-226-8254.


Reporter Kate Croxton can be reached at or 336-506-3078. Follow her on Twitter at @katecroxtonBTN.