Ja Di Gon Sa -- The Troop Honor Society

As a Scout in Troop 273, there were two honor societies where one could earn membership. The first was a local Troop honor society: Ja Di Gon Sa. The second was the Boy Scout's national honor society: Order of the Arrow (OA). Troop 273 was unusual in that most Troops did not have their own local honor society. Most Troops chose to participate in OA, generally administered by each Boy Scout District and Council. I was fortunate to become a member in both honor societies. However, I enjoyed my time as a Ja Di Gon Sa member, much more than I did with Order of the Arrow. The day when I was tapped out as a Ja Di Gon Sa member, during summer camp 1966, remains as one of the proudest achievements of my life.

Ja Di Gon Sa

Ja Di Gon Sa was the honor society for Troop 273. Like Order of the Arrow, scouts were voted into the society by their fellow scouts. And also like OA, Ja Di Gon Sa was inspired by native American legends and lore. Ja Di Gon Sa used the Iroquois as the basis for society legend and purpose, while Order of the Arrow used the Lenni Lenape for their legend and purpose. Although I am still sworn to secrecy about both Societies, I can let you know that Ja Di Gon Sa involved the Iroquois False Face Society.

During summer camp, there would be an election for Ja Di Gon Sa. The requirements were simple: one must be held in high esteem by fellow Boy Scouts, be at least a First Class Scout and must be a second-year summer camper or later. (You could not be elected to Ja Di Gon Sa during your first summer camp). Needless to say, all elections were approved by the Scoutmaster and Scout Leadership. Generally, 2 to 3 boys were elected every summer camp.

I remember during my first summer camp that once we went to bed, for several evenings after "Lights Out," we would hear Indian drums from the campfire area. I later learned that these were the drums used for the Tap Out rehearsals. The adult leaders and junior scout leaders were preparing for the Tap Out: the campfire when new candidates were selected. Finally, after several nights of practice, and once the election was completed, the formal Tap Out around the campfire would begin.

The night of the tap out, all of us scouts circled the campfire as usual. One of the adult leaders dressed as a native American would come out and begin the story of Deganawidah, who became a great chief of the Iroquois. The story teller described one the challenges that the young warrior faced: to confront and defeat The Stone Giants.  The narrator continued: “Deganawidah faced the Stone Giants, saying…”  The story ended abruptly at this point. Then the Indian drums began, thumping slowly at first and then speeding up throughout the dance. It was the familiar, rythmic, BUM-bum-bum-bum pattern. Our junior scout leaders, dressed in native American garb, wearing false face masks and long black wigs danced around the fire, looking carefully at each scout.

Each time, the drums would speed up, and one or two braves would stop dancing around the fire and run towards a scout candidate, jumping over his shoulder. The boy would then be dragged from the campfire circle, back into the woods. This would happen two or three times, until all the scout candidates had been selected and dragged off. During the year I was selected, there were only 2 Scouts chosen (Gerard Meskill was the other scout!). For the rest of the scouts, they would sing a few songs, conclude with Taps and would retire for the evening. Scouts would not hear the conclusion of the Tale of Deganawidah: only those chosen for Ja Di Gon Sa would hear the conclusion of the tale.

Those that were tapped out were blindfolded and led to a desolate spot in the woods, far away from the campsite. The blindfolds were completely disorienting since it was night anyway, and there was no artificial light anywhere visible in the woods. The candidate's first instruction was to remain silent until the Ordeal was completed. And yes, it was called an Ordeal.  To insure our silence, we were told to whittle a bit, that we would then put in our mouth for the duration of the ordeal. If we spoke, a notch would be cut in our bits. If we talked too much, we could be rejected as candidates and sent back to camp. So we slept out under the stars the night of the Tap out. We had a very basic camp mat for the ground and we slept in the open air. We were told to meditate about service and scout ideals before we went to sleep. It was a magical and mystical night for a city boy looking at the deep and dark night skies: it seemed the stars grew brighter and multiplied with every second that passed.

We were woken very early the next morning. We would begin a day of service as part of the ordeal. We would work hard, and in silence, given only bread and water for nourishment. During my ordeal, we must have cut every bit of high grass at Sanita Hills. There was only one other candidate besides me (Gerry Meskill who coincidentally also went through the OA Ordeal with me), and we both wielded a hand sickle for most of the day. I also remember how hot it was that day and we were continually soaked in sweat. This was not a day where we could cool down with 2 swim periods. We also cut timber and installed conservation walls along the hillside, putting in place a fairly large natural terrace system.  We worked from 6:00 AM till about 8:30 PM straight. As darkness covered the woods, we were brought back to our sleeping spot from the night before, sweaty, dirty and exhausted. An adult leader met us at the site: we were then blindfolded again and brought to a very special place.

After what seemed like an eternity of walking blindly through the dark woods, my right arm outstretched and my hand on the right shoulder of my scout guide, we ended up at our destination. As my blindfold was removed, I was astounded by what I saw. As my vision struggled to adjust to the dimly lit scene, I saw several native American chiefs in front of me, the only light provided by several flickering candles. Their shadows danced on their backdrop of pine branches. On each side of me were junior scout leaders in native American dress, some wearing false face masks.

The narrator from the previous evening, now completed the tale of Deganawidah. When the tale was completed, we swore a solemn oath of service to Scouting and were warmly welcomed as the newest members of Ja Di Gon Sa. Among the many hugs and hand shakes, we were awarded our distinctive white and red Ja Di Gon Sa neckerchief. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was only after I put the neckerchief on, and electric lights were lit, that I realized we were in the dining hall mess tent in area G10. The leaders had masterfully decorated the tent and given the illusion of a secluded, sacred, mysterious place by clever use of candles and pine branches.

The Ja Di Gon Sa Neckerchief
Members of Ja Di Gon Sa wore their distinctive neckerchiefs with great pride. I was fortunate to receive the "old school" hand cross-stitched version. These neckerchiefs were made by Bill Sullivan's sisters and I am eternally grateful to them. About two years after I received my neckerchief, the Troop started issuing a mass-produced printed pattern neckerchief. I received one of these as well, but never wore it. I always chose to wear the old school variety. And, as I progressed from Scout member, to junior scout leader dancer to narrator of the tale, I always wore the older version. I remember younger scouts looking at me like I was a dinosaur, given the age of that neckerchief. "He's one of the old-timers."

I have received many awards and decorations during my 20 year Army career. As an adult scout leader, I earned the Wood Badge and I was awarded the Silver Beaver and the St George Emblem, among other honors. Still, the old Ja Di Gon Sa neckerchief remains one of my most precious possessions.

Bill Welsch and the other leaders served us a feast right after the ceremony. And I really mean a feast. We had a porterhouse steak dinner with baked potatoes, and green beans. That was the only steak dinner I remember ever having during summer camp. Then we gorged ourselves with cookies, ice cream and soda. We went back to our tents completely exhausted but with a feeling of great pride. As I went to sleep, I thought about next morning. I would waken and attend Reveille formation for breakfast, and I would be one of the few in formation wearing my brand new Ja Di Gon Sa neckerchief.

During the next several days, I was taken away from the normal scout schedule to complete some Ja Di Gon Sa activities. First, Bill Welsch personally showed us how to braid a red and white turban head neckerchief slide. So we now had a matched, distinctive slide to use with our neckerchief. Then the junior scout leaders showed us how to make our own false face masks. They guided us as we drew up a distinctive face pattern, crafted our mask with paper mache, and then helped us to paint the red and black masks. We were also taught how to put together a simple native American dress as preparation for next year's Ja Di Gon Sa activities.

As I progressed in Scouting, I was a Ja Di Gon Sa scout dancer for the 1968 and 1969 summer camps. I also helped to run the ordeal. When I went to West Point, I became the narrator for the legend for the summer camp during 1974 at Camp Conron. I was surprised and honored when Bill Welsch asked me if I would narrate the Tap Out ceremony. So, one more time in my native American garb, complete with long black wig, this time without the mask. And I didn't want to read from a piece of paper in front of the young scouts, so I memorized the script for the legend. I look back now with great pride, as I progressed from young boy scout to adult narrator for this honor society.

I would also become a member of Order of the Arrow, and I participated with their Brotherhood for many years in different councils, attaining Vigil membership. But I always have been more fond of my Ja Di Gon Sa membership and the great memories that were inspired by my participation with my Troop's unique, honor society. Thank you to all the scouts and scout leaders that made Ja Di Gon Sa such a special memory.

Thanks to Mr Bill Sullivan for providing his thoughts and historical context:

In the late forties and early fifties, we ran a summer camp at Camp Newcombe in Wading River, NY (closed today). It was here that Ja-Di-Gon-Sa was conceived. At the time, the only avenue to Order of the Arrow membership was via attendance at camp in Ten Mile River, although it was available at Kanes Open (Tallman, NY) which operated briefly during WWII as a long term camp.

I was inducted into the OA in 1945 at Camp Man, Ten Mile River and, although I was thrilled and extremely flattered, there was something missing. I was elected by 31 camp mates whom I never saw again. We were supposed to be role-models providing cheerful service and leadership but to whom? But at home, it was same old same old for no one knew anything about the OA; in fact, besides me, only two other scouts had ever attended Camp Man. It was then that I thought OA elections should be held in local troops as it is now. That is why I organized a “Troop OA” called JaDiGonSa.

The following year, Tom Costigan (now scoutmaster of 273) joined us for a joint camp and it was then that we decided that JaDiGonSa should include both troops. You know the rest of the story (check who signed your membership card in 1966).