By Lisa Donchak
Initiation ceremonies are rarely so rigorous.
This one takes at least two days and involves a 24-hour vow of silence, smaller-than-usual meals and strenuous manual labor in the wilderness. Not only that, but the ceremonies, which include colorful, feathery and elaborate Native American costumes, are complex enough to require multiple diagrams and pages and pages upon text and pre-written scripts to explain.
But that’s all a secret.
“Most of the stuff is actually not that bad,” said Rob Heffern, an applied physics major graduating from UC Santa Cruz this quarter. “I probably [shouldn’t] tell you exactly what goes on.”
The organization, which Heffern is a part of, is not secret, although it may not be very well known. The Order of the Arrow [OA] is the honor society for the Boy Scouts.
The organization, founded in 1915, is made up of peer-elected scouts who best exemplify the ideals of scouting. OA is very family-oriented, and there is no upper age limit. Often, fathers and sons will be initiated together, and in many cases, whole families are involved in the organization. But because of its history and reputation as a conservative organization, OA has not been free of controversy.
Because OA was founded to serve the Boy Scouts, officially, the organizations share the same policies and ideas. This means that neither organization allows openly gay members. In addition, just as girls are not allowed to join the Boy Scouts, women can only join OA after their 21st birthday and usually only do so as mothers of initiated scouts. The fact that OA traditions are heavily influenced by Native American culture has been a source of debate as well.
Despite the controversy, the organization has provided an opportunity for scouts to continue scouting past the age of 18, and for some, it still provides meaningful connections and experiences.
Before scouts can take part in OA campouts and events, they must take part in the secret initiation ceremony. Often, initiates aren’t quite sure what they are in for.
“The Order of the Arrow keeps its ceremonies quiet, because there is symbolism in them that is best understood by going through them without prior knowledge,” said Jon Colby, who has been in the OA since 2001. “[The secrecy] helps make the experience more meaningful. All I can really tell you about my initial Ordeal is that it was a challenge, physically, mentally and spiritually. I don’t want to say any more.”
In order to be eligible for election, a Scout must be a “first-class” scout and have completed 15 days of camping over the past two years. However, as long as the scout is a Boy Scout, there is no minimum age threshold, and, as mentioned, no upper age limit either.
The mysticism of the ceremony, called the Ordeal, is intended to benefit younger scouts who may one day go through it themselves. The idea is that they will have a greater appreciation for the ceremony if they do not know what to expect.
The local lodge, which serves the Santa Cruz, San Benito, and Monterey County areas, held an initiation ceremony last weekend for about 25 scouts. The Esselen 531 Ordeal took place in Big Sur and was a weekend-long event. The scouts drove down on Friday, did their Ordeal work throughout the weekend, and came back on Sunday.
Jim Von Schmacht, the lodge adviser for the local OA lodge, Esselen 531, emphasized the benefits of a physically strenuous Ordeal.
“It puts [scouts] in the same mind where we can talk to them about things like leadership and service to others. [The Ordeal is] the vehicle we use to get to them to talk about the principles of the Order of the Arrow.”
Although the initiation ceremony is supposed to be secret, any concerned adult is allowed to watch the Ordeal.
Scouting in America is a complex network. Within the overall association, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), there are Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Venture Scouts, Varsity Scouts and Sea Scouts, just to name a few. Since Order of the Arrow only serves the Boy Scouts, female scouts must wait until they are 21 to join.
“We get some of the hardy camping moms, like my wife,” said von Schmacht. “There’s nothing wrong with women. Women are cool. They’re some of our hardest workers. Literally.”
OA has three levels, known as “honors.” After 10 months in the organization, Arrowmen are eligible to be Brotherhood members in the organization. After another two years, they can become Vigil members.
Jim’s son, Kyle von Schmacht, is a first-year at UCSC and a Vigil member of OA. He joined Boy Scouts in second grade as a Wolf Scout and joined OA when he was 12.
Although scouting has played a large part in his life, Kyle hesitates to tell those he meets at UCSC about his scouting experience. Many Californians, and UCSC students in particular, tend to see the BSA as a more conservative organization.
“I don’t really openly advertise [my involvement] around here,” Kyle said. “I’m concerned about the reaction. Most people are fine with scouts, but I tend to be cautious. Most of the people I’ve run into have been nice about it, although once I wore my Sea Scout hat and got a lot of dirty looks.”
Kyle von Schmacht and his father were the first members of their family to join OA, undertaking ceremony together. Later, both Kyle’s mother and his younger brother joined the organization.
The Esselen 531 lodge participates in a variety of activities throughout the year, including two Ordeal ceremonies, training sessions, and, of course, campouts. The lodge, one of the largest in Northern California, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Scott Caldwell is a Scoutmaster of Boy Scout Troop 633 in Santa Cruz, as well as an OA member. His Boy Scout troop does a lot of traveling; they recently went to Canada and New Mexico and will visit Puerto Rico this year.
“About 15 years ago, my kids wanted to go to Hawaii,” Caldwell said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah right, we’ve been there three times.’”
In order to join OA, scouts must be selected and elected by their Boy Scout troop. This was part of the original design of the organization.
“The boys in the troop know who’s the meanie, who’s the bully, who’s popular in the troop,” Caldwell said. “They vote for the scout who [they] would want to camp with.”
OA members visit each troop to pitch the organization to the Scouts. However, some Scoutmasters aren’t as open to letting OA members come talk to their troops.
Caldwell’s troop didn’t interact with OA until recently. Still, Caldwell says he encourages his scouts to join OA.
“[They] get more training,” he said.
Since OA usually targets older scouts, some Scoutmasters fear that OA would divert the attention of some of the stronger youth leaders in their troop.
“[As an Arrowman,] your first duty is back to your troop,” he said. “It’s not as if they’re taking [scouts] away.”
Although officials like Caldwell are satisfied with the organization overall, the OA is not void of various criticisms. One of the main conflicts arises from the Native American origins of the organization’s OA.
“We do Indian games, we do Native American dances,” said Michael W. Keller Jr., a UCSC alumnus . “It’s a big part of the [OA] culture. My lodge, Ohlone 63, probably has about 10 to 15 teepees. And when we go to events we bring those teepees with us.”
Jim talked about how the Native American culture can help OA members understand certain ideas.
“We’ve had blessings and concern from the Native American community,” Jim said. “We use [their culture] as a vehicle to get points across. The most powerful things we learn we learn through symbols and ceremonies.”
Heffern, however, was a little confused about the inclusion of the culture.
“OA is very Native American-based,” he said. “Then again, there aren’t many Native Americans in Boy Scouts. It always felt kind of strange to me.”
In 1998, the Order of the Arrow refashioned their logo from the Stylized Indianhead, colloquially called the MGM Indianhead, to an arrowhead. According to Jim, the Native American community asked the OA to change the logo. However, the OA website does not note the reason.
According to Jim von Schmacht, the image was altered because, back in the days of the Old West, the image of the Indian head was posted outside of stores that were offering $5 to anyone who brought in the severed head of an Indian. Because of the stigmas surrounding the image, the OA changed the symbol.
Face painting is another tradition that OA has been eliminated from their practices.
“A long time ago, face paint was worn [by scouts],” Jim said,. “And it’s not anymore. That’s due to a conversation with Native Americans.”
“It’s all about reverence,” he continued. “And we’re not trying to offend anyone.”
Andrew Hart, a student at San Jose State University, was a chapter chief for Order of the Arrow before he left home for college.
“I’m sure you could take something away from [our ceremonies] and be horribly insulted by it,” Hart said. “But the thing is that the OA as a whole has a very strong connection with the Indian community. We try to gain their respect and we often get it.”
The BSA has also been under attack for its stance against homosexuality, one which the OA also officially enforces.
Scout troop leaders cannot be gay, atheist or agnostic, since a Supreme Court ruling in 2000. The Supreme Court came to its decision based on the fact that the BSA is a private organization and may determine its own rules.
However, many local troops don’t adhere strictly to these specific rules.
“The whole thing about scouting is that we don’t push our beliefs, religion or sexual preference on the kids,” Caldwell said. “I know a few scout leaders who are gay, but they don’t push their belief on the kids. If your family’s that way and that’s your belief, we respect that. As soon as you start pushing your morals, your beliefs, on the kids, then we ask you to leave.”
In general, the attitude towards homosexuality in Californian troops is more relaxed than in other parts of the United States.
“We’re very open-minded,” Caldwell said. “We’ve had atheists throughout the years. I had one mom who was pagan.”
Within the organization, many troops have adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality of the military.
“I never knew until later on [that some scouts were gay],” Keller said. “It didn’t bother me. They didn’t let their sexual preference harm anybody else, and they kept it to themselves.”
Despite these West Coast leniencies, the organization has retained a conservative reputation. Today, fewer and fewer boys are joining the Boy Scouts and staying active. In California, the conservative notoriety is part of the reason for the lower enrollment. Keller explained that the declining popularity of the BSA would inevitably affect that of the OA as well.
“Nowadays scouting is not as popular as it used to be,” Keller said. “It’s seen as militaristic and it’s seen as very conservative. [Scouting is] very close-minded, I’ll say. Santa Cruz is very diverse and liberal.”
He continued, “If scouting fails, OA fails. [The BSA] needs to open its eyes and change a little bit.”
In the recent past, there have been fewer boys participating in scouting, which both Keller and Hart theorize is not only due to the organization’s conservative nature , but also to a simple lack of time on the part of participants.
“We will initiate 200 or 300 boys [at a time],” Hart said. “Most of these people get their sash, come to a meeting once a year, and get to the next level, but they aren’t active. The term we coined was the ‘OA reserve.’ But they proudly sport the patch and sash.”
Despite the flaws of the organization, scouts who participate in Order of the Arrow find it to be a very meaningful experience.
“Our paycheck is seeing the youth that we work with blossom and grow and go beyond anything we would ever expected,” Jim von Schmacht said. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to express. The [scouts] constantly surprise us. They go beyond what we ever expect of them.”