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The Order of the Arrow: What’s it all about?

The Order of the Arrow is at once a prominent institution in Scouting and a mysterious one. The OA is nearly as old as Scouting itself, yet it is misunderstood by some and unknown to others. While this is partly by design, there’s much about the OA that every Scouter should be familiar with.

In a four-part series, we’ll do a “101” on the history of the OA, followed by what it means to your troop and its Scouts, the OA and Cub Scouting, and the adult aspects of the Order.

The OA: What is it?

You have probably heard the Order of the Arrow described as Scouting’s National Honor Society or the brotherhood of honor campers. But membership in the OA is not an honor to be bestowed on a Scout or a recognition given for having gone camping, achieved First Class or just because it’s his turn.

Rather, the purpose of the OA is summed up as not just recognizing those Scouts who have experienced the outdoors, but who live according to the Scout Oath and Scout law. The OA promotes camping and the appreciation of the outdoors both inside and outside of Scouting, develops leadership among its members, and aims to emphasize the importance of being of service to others.

Think of it, then, mainly as a call to its members to put others first, and make it their life’s habit to do so. As Rotarians would say, it’s about service above self.

How did it get started?

The name E. Urner Goodman is familiar to nearly all Arrowmen, but for many, the story stops there. Goodman was the camp director of a Scout camp near Philadelphia in the year 1915, just a few years after the Boy Scouts of America was founded. Goodman read of a camp where a society had been formed to perpetuate the traditions and ideals of the camp from season to season, even as the campers came and went. The camp’s assistant director, Carroll Edson, and Goodman wanted to form a similar society for their camp, and since the island where the camp was located had once been a Delaware Indian camping ground, the two based their society on the legend of the Delaware. After hearing Ernest T. Seton, the Chief Scout of the day, describe how a similar organization used American Indian ceremonies at camp with great success, Edson convinced Goodman to move forward, and later that summer, the first induction was held into what is now the Order of the Arrow.

The OA started to spread nationwide after World War I and in the twenties it was experimentally adopted by the Boy Scouts of America. In the 1930s the BSA gave the program its official approval, and in 1948 the Order of the Arrow was fully integrated into the BSA.

How is it structured?

While the Order of the Arrow’s primary concern is for the individual and his obligation to serve others, the OA is organized in a parallel manner to Scouting’s structure. Each council (or field-service councils in “supercouncils”) sponsors an OA lodge. Each lodge is customarily made up of chapters, which usually coincide with the council’s district boundaries. OA members belong to the lodge serving the council they’re primarily registered in, and attend meetings and activities of their district’s chapter.

A section serves as an inter-lodge forum for exchange of ideas and larger-scale activities, such as conclaves, that can bring together hundreds or thousands of Arrowmen. Each of the BSA’s four regions encompass several sections. And the national Order of the Arrow organization conducts very large scale activities including National Jamboree support and National Order of the Arrow Conferences. The 2015 NOAC, celebrating the OA’s 100th anniversary, attracted 25,000 Arrowmen to the campus of Michigan State University.

At every level, youth leaders, elected by their fellow youth Arrowmen, are in charge, while adults appointed by the district, council or region act as advisers, supporting the youth leaders but not running the show or having a vote.

What does it do?

The Order of the Arrow isn’t a private club for the enjoyment of its members, as some might think. Sure, Arrowmen have a lot of fun – camping, hiking, eating pizza, and playing great games at meetings – but fun is the carrot that keeps Arrowmen engaged, and it works the same way as it does in the rest of Scouting.

Arrowmen, first and foremost, cheerfully provide service to others. That service takes many forms. One of the most visible is the service provided to Scout camps and the camping program. The OA helps maintain our camps through seasonal service weekends, getting camps ready to host summer campers by setting up tents, sprucing up the waterfront and grooming trails. They also promote camping in troops and packs, and help with district and council camping events like camporees and day camps. And the scope of camping service extends all the way up to the BSA’s national high adventure bases. An elite corps of Arrowmen helped build the Summit in West Virginia, a task that could never have been completed without their hard work.

Being honor campers, Arrowmen share their knowledge. They help other members of their troops learn camping skills, improve their abilities and show how camping can be more fun. They help Cub Scout packs by promoting and helping at Cub Scout resident camps and day camps, and perform ceremonies such as Arrow of Light and crossover events.

Arrowmen also fan out into their communities and provide service in ways large and small, often not visible to those who benefit as being from Scouting. The Dare to Do initiative unveiled at the 2015 National Order of the Arrow Conference is an example of OA members accepting the challenge to help others.

This is a brief summary of what the Order of the Arrow is all about. Much more information can be learned by talking with your OA chapter’s youth leaders and adult advisers. If you are an Arrowman, find your OA handbook and re-read it.

In the next article, we’ll look at how the Order of the Arrow benefits Boy Scout troops and its Scouts, and how Scouts are chosen to become Arrowmen.


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Category: Boy Scouts
  • Erin says:

    If the purpose of the order is service, then it seems to me that they should take volunteers rather than hold elections.

    January 4, 2017 at 4:13 pm
    • Frank says:

      Stay tuned – I’ll discuss the election process in the next article.

      January 4, 2017 at 4:18 pm

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