Tapping Fire!

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Without a doubt, the high point of a week at Camp Geiger comes on Thursday night. This is the night of the “Tapping Fire”, when new candidates for admission to the tribe of Mic-O-Say are publicly selected. As we went into in greater detail in yesterday’s post, the Tribe is the honor camping society of the Pony Express Council, the Heart of America Council, and Camp Geiger. Again, it is similar to the national scout camping honor society, Order of the Arrow, but Mic-O-Say is unique. For example, the Tribe of Mic-O-Say has greater adult involvement in its leadership.

Thursday can seem to drag by as everyone waits for the Tapping 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. We regathered together at lunchtime for a meal of sliced turkey breast and cheese sandwiches with potato chips and deeply-colored 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 tastier by the robust appetites worked up in the course of moving all around this hilly terrain.

Back in camp, some of our Troop 451 Tribesmen worked on headbands or leggings, while others made essential repairs to back bustles or arm bands. Everyone stayed busy.

Last evening, we were treated to a brief rain shower around dinner time. Fortunately, the rain stopped by the time the evening’s ceremonies began. While current tribesmen busily tended to their various duties, everyone else enjoyed dinner (burgers and fries) and then assembled for the evening’s events. 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.

For first-time campers, and for those who may be tapped, this is an evening of excitement and awe. The troops attending the session assemble in the Handicraft Corral. Wearing their full Scout field uniforms (aka ‘class A’), they form neat lines while awaiting their guides. When the guides arrive, the excitement begins.

Now, Tapping Valley is almost right below the Handicraft Corral but, the night of the Tapping Ceremony, the path from the Corral to the Valley is roundabout and punctuated by several stops where 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. Tribesmen 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 rapt silence. Accordingly, this is known as the Story Fire.

From Story Fire, the campers are led back across camp to Tapping Valley. This time of year, dusk is falling then, around 9:00 PM, and the fireflies come out in great abundance. Their surprisingly intense flashes of light, which can be seen from all the way across the Valley,  make the vegetation look alive in the dimming light. They offer a nice counterpoint to the growing blaze at the center of the Valley.

There, tribal Firebuilders have constructed a huge and elaborate bonfire that looks something like a giant wooden tipi built around a ‘log cabin’ type of fire. 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. Up close, one can see that this session, it reaches almost 16 feet in height! What looked like good-sized sticks from the distance 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. 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.

The campers walk silently, arms crossed, towards the fire. As they near their destination, they are flanked by two long lines of older members of the tribe  all decked-out in their Native American-style finery. While the simplest Honorary Warrior’s costume is nevertheless quite elaborate, many costumes are far more impressive. All have required great effort on the part of their builders, ranging from tens to hundreds of hours.

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 even more hours of painstaking detail. Many Tribesmen elect to sport optional items to dress up their already-fancy garb. The effect is truly stunning.

By the time the campers reach the fire, the blaze grown so large that it lights up the whole of Tapping Valley, casting an orange light on the hillsides and trees and on all the scouts and friends in attendance. In the past, I have described this as a flickering light but so large a fire does not really flicker. Instead, it casts a fairly steady glow all around, despite the intricately dancing flames.

Braves and Warriors of the Tribe have also worked hard constructing their elaborate costumes, based on Native American models. For a new brave, constructing such regalia may take all year. Now, at the Tapping Fire, they get to display their handiwork. All the Braves and Warriors sport breechcloths over their gym shorts, arm bustles adorned with elaborate featherwork, knee bells, moccasins, a rattle, and back bustles. This last item is often spectacular and these large fan-like feather appurtenances accentuate the dancers’ every move.

A back bustle is an array of feathers arranged in a circular fashion and attached, of course, to the dancer’s back. The choice of colors is as varied as the young men who make the bustles. Some are made of unadorned natural feathers, such as the fan feathers from a Tom turkey. Others include many different types of feathers, ranging from primary wing feathers (typically domestic turkey), to hackles and fluffs, which are usually vibrantly colored. Sometimes, the feather tips are further decorated with streamers of horse hair or ribbon. The back bustle is usually the pride of a Brave’s first year with the tribe. In addition to the back bustle, Warriors sport a neck bustle. This is a slightly smaller version of the back bustle and is usually made along the same pattern. However constructed, they all look great!

The leg bells can be a simple leather garter to which sheep bells, hawk bells, beehive bells, sleigh bells, or some combination of these are attached. Some ‘bells’ are made from natural materials, such as deer toes (hooves). Other warriors create Apache leggings. These are essentially knee bells further dressed-up with fur that drapes from the bells to the dancer’s ankles. As a result of wearing the knee bells or Apache leggings, the dancers’ every move can be heard as a jingle-jangle.

In the course of their first year as Braves, the Scouts have learned some of the Tribes dances and their knowledge is reinforced by mandatory dance practices at Camp Geiger. These are held in the later afternoon. Thus, by Thursday night, all the Braves and Warriors in camp are ready to perform together.

The Indian dancing is a fantastic spectacle. The dancers perorm in a ring, circling the enormous, blazing Tapping Fire. The sight of a hundred or more young men in full Native American dance regalia, dancing to the sounds of chanting in native tongues and the rhythmic boom of the tom-tom is truly impressive. (You can view photos here: https://www.facebook.com/Micosay/photos_albums). Hollywood has not offered better entertainment.

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 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.

Once the dancers leave their ring around the Tapping Fire, 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 large ring around the bonfire. The ring is quite large since there are a couple of hundred such scouts and Scouters at any given summer session.

A group of tribesmen stand on a steep hillside above the valley known (not affectionately) as “Cardiac Hill”. Two lines of young men, holding aloft brightly burning torches, form a gauntlet through which the night’s Tapper dashes. The sight of the blazing torches illuminating the tribesmen in their fascinating regalia again makes one feel a bit as if transported to another time.

A chilling and surprisingly 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 Directing Medicine Man directs them to the West side of the ring where the candidates form in lines. Watching the elated Scouts tear across the ring to join the line of candidates is thrilling.

The drama is repeated again and again by the dancing orange firelight, with the tapper running around the ring, tomahawk in one hand, torch in the other, both held high, until every candidate has been tapped. Adding to the suspense, scouts are not necessarily tapped in the order in which they are standing. Sometimes the tapper passes 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 excitement at being selected.

This week, 60 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. Seven Scouts from our troop were tapped this year.

After a review of the candidates, involving ritualized questions from tribal elders about their fitness and suitability for membership, they 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 that of “Foxman,” a rank before membership. As Foxmen, they are charged with silence and challenged to work to improve the Camp. Then, carefully-trained 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. The dancers then reform a ring around the fire to perform a dance of joy, celebrating the fine new candidates who may become new braves. The whooping and ululations are visceral as they dance about, bathed in the orange firelight. The world then looks black and gold. Again, one gets a sense of what it might have been like to belong to a tribe long ago.

Adults who were not admitted to the Tribe as youths are also eligible for membership. 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. For the public, that is the end of the ceremony though for the Foxmen, their night is yet young.

Before the Scouts and Scouters in the audience are dismissed, the Chief and Directing Medicine Man address them. New campers are encouraged to return and strive to merit membership in the Tribe. Those who may have hoped to be tapped but were not are reassured that they have a chance next year. Not being tapped this year does not bias their chance of selection next year. There are no 'black marks' against anyone's name.

After 90 years of practice, the Tribe of Mic-O-Say has perfected the process of inducting new members in ceremonies that are dramatic, 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. It also keeps older Scouts actively involved with their troops; even after earning their Eagle Scout award, they may still advance within the Tribe as long as they remain in Scouting.

The fact that membership in the Tribe promotes the ideals and goals of Scouting 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. Mic-O-Say is a great tradition for our troop to be a part of. Again, if you have the opportunity, attending a Tapping Fire is an experience well worth having.

Again, this morning was an extremely early one, as this writer was awakened at 4:22 AM by the sounds of Runners yelling encouragement and instruction at the new Foxmen. Then it was off to the dining hall to help cook breakfast. Like last night, tonight may be a very late one. Therefore, a post recounting Friday’s adventures may not appear right on time, though it will appear. I promise!
Tonight, we will learn which candidates have successfully completed the challenges placed before then and thus have earned membership in the Tribe. We wait with bated breath!


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