History of the Order of the Arrow

American Indian CoupAmerican Indian CoupThe Order of the Arrow is a recognized official program activity of the Boy Scouts of America, intended to recognize those scouts who best exemplify the Scout virtues of cheerful service, camping, and leadership. Founded in 1915, just seven years after British General Sir Robert Baden-Powell invented scouting in the United Kingdom, the Order of the Arrow is the uniquely American "honor society of scouting". The "OA's" origin and development are tightly intertwined, like a well-made square knot, with scouting itself in the United States. Its history is a remarkable saga of a good-hearted visionary's effect on many generations of youth.

The new scout movement was enjoying halcyon days in an America still at peace in 1915, while young men in Europe were dying by the thousands in a war more terrible than any before in history. Boys in the U.S. seemed to be donning scout uniforms everywhere as membership grew rapidly from coast to coast. Prominent businessmen, civic and religious groups, and politicians, including Congressmen and the President, vied to match the enthusiasm of boys surging into scout camps across the nation, for this popular youth organization.

As E. Urner Goodman, then a 25 year old scoutmaster, walked along Broad Street in downtown Philadelphia in late Spring, 1915, he no doubt heard the newsboys hawking the Philadelphia "Inquirer's" headlines, reporting the sinking of the Cunard oceanliner "Lusitania" hit by a U-boat's torpedoes within sight of the Irish coast. Urner was busy with plans that would also have far reaching effects, for he had agreed to take the job of camp director at the Philadelphia council's scout camp, perched on idyllic Treasure Island in the Delaware River. What he had in mind was to leave a lasting imprint on the lives of thousands of American youth.

Although he would eventually attain a doctorate in education and become National Program Director of the BSA, Urner's thoughts in 1915 were focused on development of methods to teach boys that skill proficiency in Scoutcraft was not enough, rather the principles embodied in the Scout Oath and Law should become realities in the lives of Scouts. As a means of accomplishing this without preaching and within a boy's interest and understanding, peer recognition and the appeal of Indian lore would be utilized. Hence, he devised a program where troops would choose, at the conclusion of camp, those boys from among their number best exemplifying these traits, who would be honored as members of an Indian "lodge". Those elected would be acknowledged as having displayed, in the eyes of their fellow scouts, a spirit of unselfish service and brotherhood.

Assistant Camp Director Carroll A. Edson helped Urner research the lore and language of the Delaware Indians who had inhabited Treasure Island, which they combined with characters from James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans", to develop dramatic induction ceremonies for the "Order of the Arrow", as the fledgling honor society was dubbed. Even today, these rites make a lasting impression on scouts who have been elected to the "Order of the Arrow".

By 1921, the idea had spread to a score of scout councils in the northeast and the first national meeting of the Order of the Arrow was held. Initially viewed with suspicion by many scouters as a secret society if not an affront to the egalitarian ideals of scouting, support was slow in coming from national headquarters. For many years, the "OA" was considered to be an "experimental" program only. Not until 1948 was E. Urner Goodman's innovation fully integrated into the Scouting program.

Key to the ongoing success of the Order of the Arrow was the purpose:

Having observed its Diamond Anniversary in 1990, it is evident that the Order of the Arrow has made a significant contribution to Scouting, as we know it today in the United States. The OA's motto, "Brotherhood of Cheerful Service", is more than just an empty slogan for many Arrowmen, who constitute a valuable council resource for camp promotion, improvement projects, and summer camp staffing. The OA, at its best, continues to be a teaching tool for Scouting ideals.

Many believe that the OA helps in retaining older boys in Scouting who otherwise tend to lose interest upon reaching high school age. Notably, OA guidelines place great importance on preserving Lodge leadership in the hands of its boy members, headed by a Chief, Vice Chief(s), and an Executive Committee, all of whom must be under age 21. These youth plan and implement Lodge activities, service projects, ceremonies, publications, budgets, and conduct troop elections as arranged with the Scoutmaster. Adults are crucial to the OA program's success as advisors and as resources (e.g., transportation, service project skills, etc.).

To be inducted into the Order of the Arrow, a Scout must:

Each Scout troop may schedule an Order of the Arrow election once annually. In many Councils, these elections are held at summer camp, in line with the traditions of the OA's founding. This is not mandatory however. All registered active youth troop members have a vote, both current Arrowmen and non-Arrowmen. Selection for membership in scouting's honor society is thus predominantly voted by non-members. While Explorer posts cannot have OA elections, a boy in an Explorer post who has dual registration with a Scout troop (or Crew/Ship/Varsity unit) is, of course, eligible for election by his troop or Crew/Ship/Varsity unit.

Adult scouters may be proposed for membership in the Order of the Arrow by unit or district committees. Once selected, they, too, undergo the "Ordeal" and participate in the induction ceremonies.

To alleviate lingering concerns in some quarters regarding the ceremonial aspects of the Order of the Arrow, the BSA has officially stated:

"The induction is not a hazing or an initiation ceremony. The Order is not a secret Scout organization, and its ceremonies are open to any parent, Scout leader, or religious leader. There is an element of mystery in the ceremonies for the sake of its effect on the candidates. For this reason, ceremonies are not put on in public. The ceremonies are not objectionable to any religious group."

Following 10 months as an "Ordeal" member, the Arrowman may participate in the "Brotherhood" ceremony, which signifies the sealing of his membership and an additional emphasis on OA ideals and purposes.

After an additional 2 years have elapsed, exceptional OA leaders may be recognized by conferring of the "Vigil Honor". Generally speaking, only 212 of the Lodge's membership may be selected each year for this highest of Lodge honors. A special ceremony, devised by Dr. Goodman in 1915 and closely based on ancient Indian traditions, culminates this experience.

All Order of the Arrow members are reminded that their primary duty always remains to their own troop, which elected them in the first place as a result of their cheerful service to their fellow unit members. OA Lodge activities are intended to supplement, and not replace, troop activities. Probably the single most often-heard complaint directed towards the OA program is that of Arrowmen who have forgotten this cardinal principle.

OA Lodges meet with other lodges in their sections each year and attend a nationwide gathering held on the campus of a major university every 2 years. These National Conferences, as they are called, feature individual and Lodge competitions in ceremonies, Indian dancing and costumes, and sports, along with seminars and gala arena shows.

Founder Dr. E. Urner Goodman made his final Order of the Arrow National Conference appearance in 1979 at Colorado State University, only 6 mos. before his death at 89. He was hailed by the 4000 Arrowmen present with a thunderous standing ovation. He spoke movingly of his creation of the OA as a "Thing of the Spirit" in that place... so distant in time...on the misty shores of the Delaware River. He bade us farewell, there in the shadows of the snow-capped Rockies, with a memorable peroration to keep the OA's flame of fellowship glowing brightly in our hearts. 'Tho a frail, elderly man stood before us, stooped with age, yet the spirit borne within would truly live on in our hearts, firm bound eternally in youthful brotherhood, wherever men strive to love and serve one another.

[Apparently this article is based in part on material written by Jim Howes, (c) 1991, 1994, 1997, 1998 Atlas Communications. All rights reserved. Used by permission. A copy of his article is posted at http://usscouts.org/honorsociety/oahistory.html. Email: 76264.2124@compuserve.com ]