Who exactly are the Boy Scouts of America and do they still have a place in modern society?

The Secret Ceremony
The fire was probably twenty-five or thirty feet high by the time it reached its apex, a breathy inferno sending sparks and glowing ash high into the darkening sky. Its heat made the leaves of nearby trees tremble as if they’d caught a vertical breeze. The crackling bluster was enough to drown out the words of some of the more soft-spoken performers assembled around. All wore feathered headdresses, black and red and white paint smeared across their faces, moccasins on their feet, and nothing but loincloths to protect them from the swarming mosquitoes. Their faces and bare chests shone with sweat.

Even seated fifty feet away, I could feel the heat from the fire pushing against the evening chill. As the “Indians” danced around the fire, moving in time to the boom of a large drum and brandishing feathers, I kept returning to the same image from my childhood: Peter Pan in Neverland introducing the lost boys to the “piccaninny warriors.” It was both charmingly nostalgic and troublingly appropriative. But I wasn’t watching an outdoor staging of a Peter Pan play. I was in the woods of northern Wisconsin at Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan, waiting for unsuspecting boys to be chosen for membership into the Order of the Arrow.

The youngest of these boys looked awed by the spectacle before them. It’s not often that nearly five hundred boys under the age of eighteen are capable of filling a stadium without uttering a word. The silence was broken only by the roar of the fire and the scuffling of footsteps upon the earth. The expressions on the Scouts’ faces reflected a variety of emotions: excitement, surprise, trepidation. No matter how many explosions or CG-spectacles these boys may have seen on TV or in the movies, there’s something primordial about a fire blazing in front of you.

As the “chieftains” danced through symbols drawn in the sand surrounding the immense fire, one stepped aside and waited for the percussive beating of the drums to stop before resuming his tale. As far as I could tell, they were re-enacting a fictional history of the peaceful Lenni-Lenape in the Delaware Valley (who, strangely enough, wore costumes more suggestive of the Great Plains tribes) as they prepared to fight some aggressive, faceless enemy.
“Chief Chingachgook … ” the speaker started.

I tried to remember where I’d heard that name before.

“ … bound these warriors into a great and honored order into which could be admitted only those who their own self-interest could forget in the service of others.”

The Last of the Mohicans. That’s where I’d heard of Chief Chingachgook. In an early American novel by James Fenimore Cooper, popularized by the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis.

“We therefore to them succeeding to the present day perpetuate the name and token of this brotherhood of cheerful service called by the Delaware the Order of the Arrow!” he concluded.

I tried to recall if Cooper had used similarly stilted language in his stories, but I suspected not; this was probably another stage effect meant to make the ceremony seem ancient despite the fact that the Order was created in 1915.

Once the mythic background of the Order of the Arrow (OA) had been divulged to the audience, the performers sprinted through the crowd of four hundred seventy Scouts and plucked individuals out, dragging them across the sand to form a line on the far side of the fire. Most of the captured Scouts looked disoriented as they tried to keep up with their captors.

The Indians performed the selection process three times, sprinting around the fire, weaving through the audience, the sound of their panting audible over the fire by the end. Around seventy new members of the Order of the Arrow were chosen, mostly boys aged  fourteen and younger as well as a few adults (men and women can be inducted into the OA at any age).

For the next twenty-four hours, the selected group would have to maintain absolute silence. Each candidate would spend the night alone in a field, out of sight of the others. The next day they’d have to perform acts of “arduous toil” (painting around camp and cutting wood), while subsisting on a diet of “scant food” (some cereal for breakfast, half a sandwich for lunch, a hot dog for dinner). In the evening, they’d become official members of the Order of the Arrow and celebrate with a pizza party.

The ritual is almost as old as the Boy Scouts of America itself and exists as an ancillary unit, a sort of honor society that rewards those who demonstrate cheerful selflessness. It seems to embody many of the principles of the BSA: respect for the wilderness, a strange and reverent, if not obsessive, relationship with history and Native Americans, and, above all, a desire to do good deeds for the organization—the last of these partially explained away by Michael Kuhn, the man in charge of the Order of the Arrow festivities at Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan.

“We are fortunate to have more or less permission from the Menominees, who are in the region of the camp,” Kuhn said. “Some lodges are unable to put on a ceremony like ours due to local tribes not giving them grace to do it. If you talk to some other lodge or honors masters, there are things you have to tiptoe around.”

I filed out of the earthen stadium behind the family members who’d come to support their sons and brothers. The fire was burning lower now but still scorched the air around it. I felt dazed and overwhelmed by the production I’d just witnessed. Why hadn’t I heard of this immense ritual? Who exactly are the Boy Scouts of America, with their enormous rituals and a history that stretches back over 100 years? Do they still have a place in modern society?

Scouts of the North Shore achieve the hard-earned rank of Eagle Scout.

Scouts of the North Shore achieve the hard-earned rank of Eagle Scout.

An American History
I was in the Girl Scouts for several years as a child. I didn’t last long enough to make it past the rank of Brownie, not because I disliked it, but because my family moved and I couldn’t find a new troop. My memories from Girl Scouts are, I expect, familiar to anyone else who’s participated in the group: going door-to-door selling cookies and eventually convincing my parents to buy more than we could reasonably eat; reciting the pledge in the church basement where our meetings were held, three fingers raised in salute; making seasonal arts and crafts and singing silly songs. The highlight of the year was always summer camp, where I spent a week in a platform tent far from my parents. There was one incident when an enormous wolf spider was crawling above our heads in the tent, too high to force it down, and in the morning I woke with a row of spider bites on my wrist. I remember the glistening black bodies of leeches clinging to the underside of our canoes when we pulled them out of the Maumee River, the smell of the horse corral, the brightness of stars far from the dampening influence of city lights.

There were never any rituals or solemn ceremonies. I never saw a fire so large it could swallow a small garage. When we gathered in an outdoor stadium, it was for the end-of-the-week skit contest. Despite the similarity in their names, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are completely unrelated. The two groups have different founders, different missions, and different organizational structures. As a Girl Scout, all I knew about the Boy Scouts was that they wore tan uniforms and neckties and sometimes they carried flags in parades. They had a reputation for being uncool, nerds. The one guy I knew in high school who stayed in Boy Scouts until he was a senior was one of the geekiest people I knew. His decision to occasionally wear his uniform to school did nothing to help his reputation

One teenage Scout who came to Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan for the first time is only a few merit badges away from achieving the rank of Eagle Scout. Erik Janssen, 16, showed me the steel plate he’d made in his metalworking class and said how much he’d enjoyed the camp. When I asked what he’d gotten out of Scouting after so many years, he had to think for a minute.
“There’s so much,” Janssen said. “I just wish I could be in Scouting longer, truthfully. I’m gonna be aging out in like two years now. I’ve learned a lot from Scouting, leadership-wise, enthusiasm-wise, getting more involved and being able to talk to people easier.”

I asked if there was a reputation in his Wisconsin high school of Scouting being lame or nerdy. He answered in the affirmative, but was unfazed.

“There’s people out there who [say] that,” Janssen said. “You’ve got to feel bad for those people because they don’t understand what they’re missing, they really don’t. They just think, ‘Oh it’s some boys’ club, big deal.’ They don’t know what they’re missing.”

Then, I started learning more about the BSA.

I discovered former Scouts were everywhere. Lots of famous people had been Scouts—Neil Armstrong, Hank Aaron, Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Buffett, Michael Moore, Walter Cronkite, Harrison Ford, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama. On a more personal level, I discovered half the guys I knew were Scouts at one point: some of my closest friends, my husband, even my dad, who had been a couple badges away from Eagle Scout when he decided he was tired of the work and stopped, a decision he now regrets.

Scouting seemed to be a thing no one talked about but that everyone had been through, a coming-of-age rite that all American boys eventually undergo, so tightly wound into the fabric of American life that nobody stops to think about where it came from or whether we still need it.

Being the premier boys’ leadership group in the country is a reputation the BSA has worked hard to maintain. When the organization was incorporated by Chicago publisher William Boyce in 1910, it was in direct competition with other boys’ clubs, including a group called the American Boy Scout, created by William Randolph Hearst. It wasn’t until Congress wrote a 1916 charter giving the Boy Scouts of America a monopoly on the name that the BSA began to emerge as the leading youth organization for boys.

The City of Chicago has a long history of Scouting, beginning with its founder’s origins.

Like any long-enduring organization, the origin of the BSA is rooted in myth and history. The idea for a Scouting organization began with British military hero Robert Baden-Powell. Following his service in the Boer War, Baden-Powell wrote a manual on nature skills and called it “Scouting for Boys.” His fear, which was being felt across the Atlantic as well, was that boys growing up in the 20th century were becoming soft. After a successful camping trip to Brownsea Island, Baden-Powell’s group exploded.

A few years later, Boyce was visiting England when he got lost in foggy London. According to legend, a boy appeared out of the mist and guided Boyce to his destination. When Boyce offered him a tip, the boy refused it and explained a Scout wouldn’t take a tip for doing a good turn. The encounter inspired Boyce to bring the organization to America, where it flourished. By 1925, the group already had an enrollment of 500,000 and 154,127 volunteers serving them, a not-insignificant number considering the organization was little more than ten years old and there were less than nine million boys of Scouting age in the country at the time.

The Boy Scouts of America have long been revered, as evidenced by this meeting with President Harry Truman in the Oval Office in 1951.

The Boy Scouts of America have long been revered, as evidenced by this meeting with President Harry Truman in the Oval Office in 1951.

The City of Chicago has a long history with Scouting, beginning with its founder’s origins. Boyce ran a successful publishing company in Chicago and distributed newspapers to thousands of rural readers. Although he had some problems with the Chief Scouting Executive after the formation of the BSA, Boyce left his mark on Scouting in America, and Scouting, in turn, has marked Chicago.

Today there are two councils that serve Chicagoland, including suburbs surrounding the city. The recently created Pathway to Adventure Council is a merger of four individual councils that united for the first time this year. The Northeast Illinois Council, founded in 1929, serves the remaining suburbs not covered by the Pathway to Adventure Council. Both provide support to local troops and lodges. Both own camp properties in multiple states that members of the council can attend, and they offer information about the dozens of other campgrounds affiliated with the BSA.

According to the U.S. Scouting Service Project website, the State of Illinois has seventy camps, more than almost any other state, behind only Pennsylvania and Texas, both with seventy-five, and California, with ninety. In addition to the camps in their state, Chicagoland Scouts are uniquely positioned to benefit from camps in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Though camping may only be a vehicle through which Scouts learn valuable skills—leadership, social skills, and even career training—it’s an appealing vehicle. And summer camp in particular offers Scouts an opportunity to be away from city and suburban life, and, as one Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan staff member put it, a chance to be around lots of “dirt, fire, and sharp objects.”

Fewer Campers, Fewer Tents
The morning after the Order of the Arrow ceremony, a crowd of Scouts spilled out of a dining hall after finishing their breakfast and singing a few songs. For most of them it was the last day of camp, the culmination of a week in the Wisconsin wilderness. Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan, which belongs to the Northeast Illinois Council, offers one- and two-week programs, but most Scouts prefer to come for a single week. Since the OA ceremony is held every other week, the odd-numbered weeks of summer camp tend to be the most popular.

The Scouts milled around outside the dining hall for a few minutes, talking to friends, preparing to pack up their gear and head home. I approached one of the older-looking boys to see what he’d thought of the week at camp. He introduced himself as Brandon Brown, a fourteen-year-old from Libertyville, and listed horsemanship and kayaking as his two favorite activities for which he earned merit badges. I asked what he would tell other boys who weren’t sure about coming to camp or joining the Scouts.

“Sometimes people don’t come to summer camps like this, and it’s a good experience for them to come and look at what you’ve got here. Some new Scouts were scared to come up here, and I told them how fun it is by showing them some postcards and some activities they do here, and they had a blast here this week,” Brown said.

When he finished talking, he wrangled up another Scout in his troop and introduced us. Noah Kublank, 13, was also from Libertyville and had been coming to camp for years, since he was a Cub Scout. I asked what it was about camp that kept him coming back every year.

“Well it’s a lot of fun to be outside in the wilderness with all your friends, and I think that’s cool,” he said.
And seeing the OA ceremony has always been a big draw. “It’s awesome. The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘Woah, big fire.’ And I thought it was just so cool how they did, like, the Indian dances with the headdresses.”

Making the trip even sweeter is its relative rarity. Kublank doesn’t have much free time to camp during the rest of the year. He plays violin and has to practice regularly, has schoolwork during the academic year, and helps his mom with housework over the summer.

“Usually I am pretty busy, even over the summer, so this is a good escape,” he said.

The problem of busyness hasn’t gone unnoticed by council staff members. “Scouting in general has been declining,” said Marc Ryan, Pathway to Adventure Council deputy Scout executive. “We talk a lot about not only is there greater competition for kids’ time, but in a lot of ways there’s a greater competition for a family’s time. Scouting is still an organization that relies heavily upon a significant amount of volunteers.”

Ryan cited the attraction of the Internet and video games, changing workplace expectations that have parents spending more time in the office, and the variety of extracurricular activities as outside forces that take kids away from Scouting.

The number of Scouts enrolled has dropped around the country, and Chicago is no exception. At a high point in 1972, there were 6.5 million boys enrolled in Scouting, a number that amounted to just under one-third of the total population. By 2011, that number was down to 2.7 million; in 2014, it had dropped further to 2.4 million.

“We’re starting to see that turn around here,” said Michael Hale, Scout executive for the Northeast Illinois Council. “If you compared membership with last year at this time, we have less members, but it’s trending positive. We’re losing fewer people. And we’re retaining more.” The trick, Hale said, is getting the phone out of the kid’s hand and getting him off the couch. His goal is to make sure kids who join stay in for as long as possible.

“Once we recruit a young man or young lady [for the co-ed Venturing program], our job is to use Scouting’s methods to teach kids good values, how to make good decisions, and the longer we can keep them in the program, the longer we can affect their decision-making process,” Hale said.

It’s not always easy to keep kids in Scouting, even with all the attractions of a high-adventure summer camp that offers campers the chance to sail, kayak, scale a climbing wall, ride horses, and shoot guns, not to mention the new STEM-oriented merit badges that include robotics and digital technology. But former members of the Scouts say even with all the other opportunities on offer for teenagers, Scouting can be a complementary experience.

“I was a three-sport athlete in high school, so for me, I was a captain of wrestling and captain of lacrosse and quarterback of football, and I would not miss Scout meetings,” said U.S. Congressman Bob Dold, a Kenilworth, Illinois native who achieved the rank of Eagle Scout in his St. Charles troop.

“Scouting isn’t an either/or. It’s an ‘and.’ You can play football and be a Scout. You can join the band and be a Scout. It’s not like it’s designed to exclude you from doing other activities,” Dold said.

But competition from other activities isn’t the only thing stopping some kids from joining their local troop. Like any secret society worthy of the name, the BSA has had its share of scandals. There have been accusations of sexual abuse, including a case in 2010 when an Oregon jury imposed a $20 million penalty against the Scouts. During that case, BSA records showed that one-third of abuse allegations were never reported to the police.

The greatest backlash, however, has come from the BSA’s policy on excluding gay Scouts and gay volunteers. Members of the organization voted to overturn an earlier decision not to allow openly gay Scouts in 2013, giving openly gay boys the option of joining the BSA. But they maintained the ban on gay adult leaders until much more recently.

The action was initiated by the president of the BSA, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who called for an end to the Scouts’ ban on gay adult leaders. Ultimately the group’s executives voted on the final decision; though they added that church-sponsored units could still choose local leaders, even if it meant preventing openly gay men from being leaders.

The pushback to this change has come largely from religious groups that sponsor many troops, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church).

The group seems to be moving in the right direction; the question now is if it’s too little, too late.

Has the BSA outlived its usefulness?

A Future For the Boy Scouts
Jim Neubaum, the Northeast Illinois council program director, has been involved in the BSA for almost his entire life and has been working as a camp director for around 45 years. He was inducted into the Order of the Arrow as a teenager and later nominated for the Vigil Honor, an extension of the OA that is offered only to the already-exclusive society’s most dedicated members. Neubaum was friends with Edward Goodman, who created the Order of the Arrow. He said Goodman drew on Indian lore, Masonic symbols, and even the Arthurian Knights of the Round Table to create the ceremony.

Neubaum worries that Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan’s ceremony might be a little too “Hollywood”—the fire so bright and the costumes so flashy that they obscure the value of the brotherhood: encouraging service and selflessness in young men—because he’s seen just how important Scouting and the skills it teaches can be.

“I’ve heard this so many times talking to adults—it’s their time in Scouting doing merit badge work and advancement work that struck an interest that’s not just a hobby, but a vocation,” he said. He listed Scouts who went on to become lawyers, accountants, business owners, astronauts.

It’s not just the career training from which boys benefit, says Marc Ryan, the Pathway to Adventure’s Scout executive. It’s the chance to be a leader, to meet new people, to have experiences. It’s the chance to belong.

“It’s being a part of something and understanding the greater whole and something bigger than yourself where you’re counted on,” Ryan said. “I think it’s [the organization] that’s most well-rounded. Studies I’ve read show that young folks involved in sports in addition to something like Scouting tend to be more productive, happier, have less depression.”

The Scouts at Camp Ma-Ka-Ja-Wan are a point in favor of this argument. They get to spend a week outside, building fires, sleeping in tents, learning new things, being with friends. The experience is often unforgettable.

About the author

The Ohio native is a new Chicagoan, arriving with a master’s in journalism from Columbia University to go with a bachelor’s in creative writing from Miami University. Her narrative nonfiction book, “The Last Voyageurs,” was published in early 2016.

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