The high point of any week at Camp Geiger comes Thursday night. This is the night of the “Tapping” ceremony, when new candidates for admission to the tribe of Mic-O-Say are publicly selected. The tribe is the honor camping society of the Pony Express Council, the Heart of America Council, and Camp Geiger. In some ways, it is similar to the national scout camping honor society, Order of the Arrow, but Mic-O-Say is unique. For example, both groups make extensive use of Native American lore and traditions but the tribe of Mic-O-Say maintains greater adult involvement in its leadership. Many camping honor societies arose in the 1920s (the tribe goes back to 1925) and most of these were eventually subsumed into OA. Yet a few, like the Tribe of Mic-O-Say, maintained their independence and thrived.
While current tribesmen are busily tending to myriad duties, everyone else enjoys dinner and then assembles for the evening’s events. Tribesmen first lead the campers across the camp to a glade where a small fire is burning in the gathering dusk. There, an elder of the Tribe of Mic-O-Say, decked in full Native American dress, tells a story about the tribe and its history while his audience listens in silence. Accordingly, this is known as the Story Fire. From there, the campers are led back across camp to Tapping Valley. In the center of the valley, tribal Firebuilders have constructed a huge and elaborate bonfire that looks something like a giant wooden tipi. By the time campers arrive from the Story Fire, the bonfire is already beginning to blaze. Approaching it from a distance in the evening dark, the fire looks like a small torch. The flames continue to get bigger as the campers move closer. The sounds of tom-toms and native chants grow louder and the silhouettes of the dancers become visible as they move about the fire in a ring.
By the time the campers reach the fire, it has grown so big that it lights up the whole of Tapping Valley, casting flickering orange light on the hillsides and trees, and on all the scouts and friends in attendance. The Indian dancing is a fantastic spectacle. The sight of a hundred or more young men in full Native American dance regalia, dancing and chanting in native tongues to the rhythmic boom of the tom-tom is truly impressive. (You can view a photo here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=547311471973277&set=a.537399729631118.1073741826.104232552947840&type=3&theater)
Tribesmen work long and hard to construct elaborate costumes based on traditional, authentic Indian garb. The most obvious and impressive components of the dance regalia are the bustles. These large fan-like feather appurtenances accentuate the dancers’ every move. Each dancer is expected to sport a full bustle and these range from the merely quite showy to the awesomely-elaborate. Back bustles, worn between the shoulder blades are a popular option, as are the smaller arm bustles adorning the upper arms. The choice of colors is as varied as the young men who make the bustles. Some go for traditional color schemes while others opt for bright, modern colors, including day-glo orange and green. The dancers also wear breech cloths or leather leggings, various hairpipe breastplates and collars, and headdresses according to their station. All of it looks great! The dancers also wear a variety of bells, from sleigh bells, to sheep bells, and even some cowbells. These may be arranged on a belt around the waist or on leather straps for the ankles and wrists. Their jingle-jangle adds to the atmosphere as the dancers circle the fire. Hollywood does not present a better spectacle. (You can view a photo here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=543515242352900&set=a.537399729631118.1073741826.104232552947840&type=3&theater) All the light comes from flame and the sound, though considerable, is unamplified by any electronic means. Standing in the firelight, immersed in the sights and sounds of the fantastic performance, one imagines that one feels what it must have been like to see such a gathering a century or two before.
When the dancing is done, tribal leaders briefly address the gathered crowd before the night’s real drama begins. All scouts and leaders who are not members of the tribe of Mic-O-Say are arranged in a ring around the bonfire. The ring is quite large since there are a couple of hundred such scouts at any given summer session. A group of tribesmen stand on the hillside above the valley holding aloft brightly burning torches. (You can view a photo here: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=539492486088509&set=a.537399729631118.1073741826.104232552947840&type=3&theater) A chilling, loud ululation rings out and from among the torches, the Tapper emerges at a run. Holding a tomahawk high in one hand and a blazing torch in the other, he races down the steep hillside, through the ring of scouts and all the way around its inside one time. Then begins the selection itself.
No one outside the tribe knows who the candidates for admission are. While candidates are typically third-year Geiger campers who have earned the rank of Star Scout, these qualifications are not hard and fast. Thus, any scout at the fire can hope to be selected. The tension is palpable as the tapper circles the ring once more. This time, he stops in front of a scout and ritually taps him twice on the chest with the tomahawk. Tapped, the scout is now recognized as a candidate for admission into the tribe of Mic-O-Say. The drama is repeated again and again by the dancing orange firelight, with the tapper running around the ring, tomahawk in hand, torch held high, until every candidate has been tapped. To add to the suspense, scouts are not necessarily tapped in the order in which they are standing. Sometimes the tapper will pass a candidate two or three times, tapping other candidates around the ring, before finally circling around once more to tap him. Thus, even if the Tapper has run by you several times, you may yet be tapped. The suspense is unmistakable, as is the candidates’ relief and joy at being selected.
This week, 75 young men were tapped. Surely, some scouts who had hoped to be tapped are disappointed not to be but the candidates, naturally, are thrilled. Many have been looking forward to this moment since the first time they attended a Tapping Ceremony two or three years before. Fourteen members of our troop were tapped this year.
The candidates assemble at the center of the ring of spectators, near the roaring fire. After a review, involving ritualized questions from tribal elders about the candidates’ fitness and suitability for membership, the candidates are led off to be instructed in what will be expected of them before they are admitted into the tribe. As of that point, their status is “Foxman,” a rank before membership. As Foxmen, they are given charges and challenged to work to improve the Camp. Then, tribesmen known as “Runners” take charge of the Foxmen and lead them off to do what Foxmen do to demonstrate their worthiness to become part of the Tribe.
Adults who were not admitted as youths are also eligible for membership in the Tribe. Young men are admitted as Braves while adults are admitted as Honorary Warriors. This is in contrast to the earned rank of Warrior (the hard way) to which braves may advance. Selection of adult candidates recognizes their service to their units and to Scouting. The elaborate, dramatic tapping ritual is reserved for the boys, however. Adult candidates are called out by name rather than by being ceremoniously tapped. This preserves the very special nature of the selection process for the scouts themselves. This year, four adult members of Troop 451 were selected as candidates. Like the younger Foxmen, the adult candidates are given charges and tasks to accomplish as they demonstrate their merit for membership. The adult candidates are likewise led off while the remaining scouts and leaders enjoy the concluding ceremonies of the fire.
After nearly a century of practice, the Tribe of Mic-O-Say has perfected the process of inducting new members in ceremonies that are both spectacular and meaningful. Membership remains a major goal for most campers at Geiger and it is a strong motivator for many boys to remain in Scouting and advance in rank. This is not by chance. Mic-O-Say is not a group alongside Scouting but, rather, a group within it. It exists to support the principles of Scouting and promote retention and advancement. At this, it has been remarkably successful; members of the Tribe attain Eagle Scout at a rate far exceeding the national average.
The tribe admitted all of Troop 451’s candidates this year, adults and young men. Mic-O-Say is a great tradition for our troop to be a part of. If you have the opportunity, attending a Tapping Fire is an experience well worth your while!