Our attention was riveted on the four young men standing before us as the flickering firelight danced on their Native American dress. I later learned that the chief of this group not only looked the part, but was an actual Native American wearing authentic gear. Some of the words they spoke seemed mysterious. Other words were familiar to all Scouts.
I left the ceremony site that night with more than a new Order of the Arrow sash. A desire to know more about the Native American elements of the OA was firmly planted in my mind. I was both surprised and pleased a few days later to learn that I could play a role in OA ceremonies.
While many know the OA by “its wide use of American Indian lore, customs, and attire,” members are cautioned that this focus must not “obscure the purpose of the Order of the Arrow” (Order of the Arrow Handbook, , Boy Scouts of America, 71). That purpose is to help boys so exemplify the Scout Oath and Law that others emulate their actions. It is to help boys develop a lifelong practice of unselfishly serving others. (OA Handbook, 7).
The OA uses Native American traditions “for dramatic effect in the ceremonies and terminology of the Order” (OA Handbook, 71). That emphasis intrigued me as a young Scout. Despite having distant Native American ancestry, I knew little of this culture. Understanding has grown over my years in the Order, occasionally punctuated by embarrassing gaffes.
The first time I played an OA ceremony role, my outfit was made of thrift store trousers, a Hollywood-ish shirt sewn by my mom, a velveteen apron, and a feathered war bonnet that was made from a kit that bore little resemblance to anything authentic. A lot of love and work went into that costume. But that’s all it was: a costume for a performer.
Over time knowledgeable OA members and gracious members of Native American communities helped hone my understanding. My outfit shifted from fake costume to more authentic and meaningful regalia, within reason. OA members use substitutes for wildlife resources that are legal only for tribal members.
I have watched many young men repeat this learning process after joining the OA. The Order advises those that are interested in its Native American elements to research and learn about the tribes that live or lived near them, and to reverently respect religious beliefs, including beliefs that are no longer practiced. After all, “You would be offended if your worship service was used for entertainment” (OA Handbook, 77).
Anytime Scouts employ Native American elements they should work to ensure that what they do respects the culture. After a great deal of hard work, cultural learning, building outfits, and learning dance moves, I watched OA members Gary and Casey nervously step by invitation into a powwow arena to dance among Native Americans. Their fellow dancers respected and honored them because they had first shown great respect for the dancers and their culture.
What does any of this have to do with Latter-day Saint Scouts? The main goal of Scouting in the Church is to promote the purposes of the Aaronic Priesthood. Among those purposes is to prepare to serve an honorable full-time mission. Nearly every full-time missionary experiences culture shock upon beginning service in the mission field, even if that service is only a few hundred miles from home.
Learning about another culture prior to leaving on a mission can provide tools and skills for appreciating unfamiliar cultural elements the new missionary will encounter. It can also make it easier for the missionary to adapt to new circumstances. Most Americans live near Native American cultures that are quite different than their own. Yet most Americans remain largely ignorant of those cultures.
The OA can provide opportunities for prospective missionary Latter-day Saint Scouts to experience one or more of these cultures. This in turn can help these young men become more effective missionaries more quickly as they encounter new cultures in the mission field.
Couple this cultural opportunity with the prospect OA members have to develop the essential missionary habit of cheerful unselfish service to others, and you will see why is it highly desirable for Latter-day Saint Scouts to become members of the Order of the Arrow.
Questions to Ponder
- Is it useful for prospective missionaries to gain an appreciation of other cultures?
- Are you aware of the cultural experiences your boys can gain through the Order of the Arrow?
- What will you do to help the boys in your unit have this opportunity?
-Scott Hinrichs has been actively Scouting since age eight. He has served in many youth and adult Scouting positions and has been a member of the Order of the Arrow for more than four decades. He and his wife are raising their family in North Ogden, Utah. The views and opinions expressed in this message are solely those of the author.