Tapping Fire

Thursday was a fantastic day for the Tribe of Mic-O-Say and for Troop 451

For many at Camp Geiger, the high point of the week comes Thursday evening with the Tapping Fire. This ceremony is where candidates for membership in the Tribe are publicly announced. The Tribe is the honor camping society of Camp Geiger. Its origins go back to the 1920s, a time when many honor camping societies stressing Native American themes came into being. Most of these were later subsumed within the Order of the Arrow, Scouting’s national honor camping society but the tribe continued its independent existence, as did some half-dozen others around the country. All of these have the mission to work within the BSA to improve Scouts and Scouting.

After nearly 90 years of experience, the Tribe knows how to put on a show.

Thursday can seem to drag by as everyone waits for the ceremony to begin. Our day started with a breakfast of scrambled eggs and apple juice, after which all of our boys headed to their specified locations. The adults, of course, stayed in the dining hall to help wash dishes. With many hands to help, this potentially-onerous chore is completed as quickly as possible.

It seemed as though we had barely finished (not true, actually) when it was time for our lunch of sliced turkey breast and cheese sandwiches with potato chips and purple bug juice of indeterminate flavor. Camp food has a reputation for being somewhat foul but here at Camp Geiger, it is decent, hearty fare, the flavor of which is made all the finer by the substantial appetites worked up in the course of moving about this hilly terrain. Those who did the Mile Swim on Wednesday, such as Mr. Rebodos, Mr. Sorensen, and both Misters Wawczak (if I have omitted you, let me know and I’ll fix it), must surely have worked up even greater appetites. Likewise for our COPE course participants.

The Thursday lunch dishes proved to be a quicker job than breakfast’s and we had time a little while to rest and relax for a moment before returning to camp. There, current tribesmen put last-minute touches on their various Mic-O-Say regalia. Some worked on headbands or leggings, while others made essential repairs to back bustles or arm bands.

Soon, it was time for a dinner of burgers and fries. As before, the salad bar was popular. After dinner, tribesmen headed off to wherever it is that tribesmen go on the night of tapping fire, to do whatever they do. The rest of our troop returned to camp until it was time to gather in the Handicraft Corral to prepare for the long hike to Tapping Valley. Now, the valley is right below the corral but, the night of the Tapping Ceremony, the path to it is roundabout and punctuated by several stops along the way where various details of the history of Camp Geiger and the Tribe of Mic-O-Say are presented to all the Scouts and Scouters attending the session.

In the center of Tapping Valley, tribesmen have built an enormous bonfire.  From a distance, it looks much like any other, ordinary, campfire but up close, one can see that it nears 18 feet in height! What one took for good-sized sticks are actually the size of telephone poles and larger. Many families and visitors attend Tapping Fire to cheer-on their sons and spouses; others come just to enjoy the spectacle. As I mentioned, the Tribe knows how to put on a show.

The Scouts and Scouters approach the valley just around 9:00 PM. While they are still in the distance but in sight of the valley, the fire is ignited. This time of year, dusk is falling then and the fireflies come out in great abundance, their surprisingly intense flashes of light making the vegetation look alive in the dimming light. They offer a nice counterpoint to the growing blaze at the center of the valley.

As it grow darker, the valley grows lighter because the fire is growing bigger. The braves and warriors start to dance around the fire, accompanied by chanting and drums. The sight of the dancers, decked out in full dance garb (including the large, fancy feather bustles each boy makes), is dramatic indeed. The dancers circle the growing inferno, silhouetted as they pass in front and illuminated as they pass behind, all accompanied by the thrumming thump of the giant tom-tom and chanting in native tongues.

The campers approach, flanked by two long lines of older members of the tribe bedecked in their Native American-style finery. While the simplest Honorary Warrior’s costume is nevertheless quite elaborate, many costumes are far more impressive. The Sachems are there in their Mandan headdresses and the Medicine Men in their plains war bonnets, as are the chiefs and chieftains. Many sport elaborate beadwork requiring hundreds of hours of painstaking detail and many include optional items to dress up their already-fancy garb. The effect is truly stunning.

The campers circle the fire, one deep, facing the flames. Among them are the young men who may be called to be candidates for membership. Once everyone is in place, two lines of torches appear on the precipitous slope of Cardiac Hill. At the head, between the torch bearers, is the Tapper. This prestigious role requires that a young man be able to run down that declivity brandishing a flaming torch, held high in his left hand, and a tomahawk, held high in his right. With a mighty war whoop, he charges down the steep slope and into Tapping Valley to enter the enormous circle of expectant Scouts and Scouters.

A crowd of nearly 500 campers makes a very large circle indeed and the tapper makes a complete circuit, both arms held high, before he begins to tap out candidates on his second pass. When a boy is tapped, the Tapper stops in front of him and taps him once on the left side of his chest. This is a ritual tap and the word tap describes the action accurately. The candidate is then tapped on his right shoulder and sent to stand before the presiding Chief in front of the roaring fire. The Tapper may circle past a candidate several times before he decides to stop and tap him. This only increases the palpable suspense that potential candidates feel as the watch the tapper making his rounds.

The Tapper continues making circuits until every candidate has been tapped. Then the Chief, Chieftains, and Medicine Men give the candidates, now styled “Foxmen” several charges before they are lead off by the runners (senior Scouts in the Tribe) to experience their Mic-O-Say ordeal. The speaking parts demand elocution and a truly stentorian voice; no electronic amplification or lighting is used in the ceremony. All the light is from flames and all the sound is that of the human voice or the giant drum. When the chants are sung, several voices in unison fill the valley but when a lone Chief or Medicine Man addresses the crowd, it is that voice and that voice alone that must be heard. It helps to be in a valley but, more crucially, it helps that the crowd is prepared to be silent and listen while the speakers are passing on their messages.

The braves and warriors then gather around the fire to perform a dance of joy, celebrating the fine new candidates who may become new braves. The whooping and ululations are thrilling as they dance about, bathed in the orange firelight. The world then looks black and gold. One gets a sense of what it might have been like to belong to a tribe long ago.

A spectacular moment comes as the fire burns down a bit and the upper parts collapse onto the lower ones. This sends a dense column of sparks skyward, burning bright against the darkening sky. The brightly-glowing sparks rise upward until they seem to merge with the stars scattered across the heavens, making it seems as though the Tapping Fire is the source of them all.

Then it is time to call out the candidates for Honorary Warrior. These are Scouters who have served their units and Scouting. They are not ritually tapped (that honor is reserved for Scouts) but instead, the Chief calls them forward by name. They too are given explanations and charges before being led off.

For the public, that is the end of the ceremony though for the Foxmen, their night is yet young.

Troop 451 had a record 14 Scouts tapped and seven adults as well.

Yes, Thursday was a fantastic day for the Tribe of Mic-O-Say and for Troop 451.


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