Skunks in the Temple

Skunks in the Temple December 31, 2009

Despite prohibition in the YMMIA handbook against the scout handclasp, swearing oaths, and the elaboration of rank advancement with ritual, the scout committee of the Pleasant Grove, Utah third ward instituted the Order of the Skunk Skull in 1937. Minutes from the first meeting record the number of attendants at 22 and list the names of some 18 scouts who took the oath of secrecy and drank “poison water from [the] ear of [a] deer.” There is a photograph of the meeting as well, showing the attendants dressed as Native Americans; one of them holds a cup fashioned from a deer’s ear mounted to a piece of wood with an antler for a handle.

Continuing to meet in a cave in the near-by mountains, the order celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1987. Originally, scouts were initiated upon achieving the rank of eagle.  But over the years, membership was offered to others, especially dignitaries, regardless of when or if they had become eagle scouts.  The 70th anniversary meeting was actually held in an LDS church if for no other reason than that there were too many attendants to fit in the cave. A few of the first skunks, still living, came, insisting on the use of the old scout handclasp, while among the candidates for initiation were the city mayor, two state representatives, several members of local bishoprics and stake presidencies, and a general young men’s board member.          

In his book Sports in Zion, Richard Ian Kimball suggests that behind the proscription of this type of scouting was the fear “that an association with Scouting ceremonies might diminish the impact of the holy activities within the temple.” Whatever the reason, no doubt a skunk would maintain that initiation in the order actually has the opposite effect.  Most fascinating to me is that the Order of the Skunk Skull operates within Mormonism and at a rather high level, notwithstanding official injunction. It would be interesting to learn the histories of however many other scout groups there are of this kind.

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  • AYdUbYA

    Weird but not uncommon in fraternities.

  • I’ve never heard of this. Where can I learn more?

  • g.wesley

    Matt W.:

    I wish there were a full treatment somewhere of this kind of scouting, inside or outside the church. I don’t think there is much at all published on it though. Anyone?

    My cousin brought the passage in Kimball’s monograph to my attention. The date of the YMMIA handbook in question is 1925. Kimball has the exact references. As far as I know, he is on the history faculty at BYU, so you might contact him for more reading suggestions.

    Presumably, to warrant discussion in the YMMIA handbook this kind of scouting would have been fairly common in the church early on. If kept, records of local groups like the skunks would be difficult to find, I imagine. A lot of the information to be had would probably be in the form of interviews with scouts.

    The other current group I’ve heard of that does stuff like this is the Order of the Arrow, founded in 1915. But it’s much, much larger and not of Mormon pedigree, though many LDS scouts belong to it. There is an informative and respectably documented article on Wikipedia which shows that the YMMIA handbook was part of a broader discourse, though the temple adds a unique component to Mormon concerns with this type of scouting.

  • Mark Brown

    g. wesley,

    About 20 years ago in the Logan area, a lot of the stake presidents and even area authorities objected to a new ritual that somebody in the scouts had introduced at the summer camp. He had begun initiating boys into a society where they were know by a new name and did secret handshakes. I never saw any of it myself, but I know many of the SPs were freaked out.

  • g.wesley

    Thanks for the info Mark. It would be great if some clerk kept minutes from those stake presidency meetings.

    Order of the Arrow began at a summer camp, I think.

  • OA brotherhood has an “Indian Name” you are given, and the scout handshake is just status quo across the whole deal. I was “Tapped out” as a member just before they made it so you could no longer be “Tapped out” but had to be “Called out”.

    I can find no other reference on Google to “Order of the Skunk Skull” besides this post. If you find anything else (Like a living breathing member) I’d love to know how the ritual/organization lives and acts today. (OA is primarily a service organization)

  • g.wesley

    Matt W.:

    I’ll be sure to let you know if I run into a living breathing skunk.

    By ‘tapped out’ are you referring to something like this from the Handbook for Scoutmasters (New York: BSA, 1925):

    Detail a Patrol Leader to go to the ante-room and get the candidate.
    Patrol Leader knocks at door.
    Senior Patrol Leader: “Who goes there?”
    Patrol leader: “Scout of troop___.”
    S.P.L.: “What is your desire?”
    P.L.: “To be admitted with the candidate…”
    Scoutmaster: “Permit them to enter.”

    Was this type of thing changed where you were to being ‘called out’? Or am I on a completely wrong track?