Illahee: A new or maybe an old meaning?

For millennia, our histories have been passed down through stories. These “Oral Traditions” are powerful in the meaning and wisdom that are communicated. We all love a good story, right? But occasionally, as new information is gleaned, in hindsight we find some inaccuracies.

We at Camp Illahee have been told and told others that the word “Illahee” meant “Heavenly World” in the Cherokee Language. Our website said it, our liturgy during Sunday worship referenced it, and for all of us, it just made sense. Illahee is a heavenly place. It’s a unique place where kindness, beauty, and welcome encompass all that we do and try to do for the many girls who, for a time each summer, call this place home.

This past summer I remember hearing from a counselor as she described the joy in a camper’s voice as their 15-passenger van turned around the bend on Illahee road. Returning from a hiking trip she shouted, “We’re almost back in heaven!!” Camp is a special place, a beautiful place, and what some might call a “thin place” where the line between heaven and earth is blurred.

Recently I reached out to the kind folks at the Cherokee Language center to learn more about this word and its history. Turns out, Illahee doesn’t mean “heavenly world.” In fact, Illahee isn’t even Cherokee. Rather it originates from the Chinook Jargon: A language spoken by indigenous tribes primarily along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

The irony is, however, that although Illahee does not mean “heaven,” In the Chinook Jargon, the closest English translation scholars say would be some combination of “land, home, and community.”

Land. Home. Community.

If I were to write a three-word story describing my time at Camp Illahee, it would be that. If I were to write a seven-word story it would be Land, Home, Community, Fried chicken on Sunday. But for the sake of brevity, we can just stick with the former.

It’s no secret that the land on which Camp Illahee exists is beautiful. Florence Williams is a scientist who studies the effects of time in nature on people’s health. She and anyone who has experienced time outside knows how positive it is for us all to disconnect from our screens and reconnect with the land around us. Campers at Illahee experience the power of authentically connecting with the land, whether it be walking down a trail, climbing up a rock, enjoying the shade under a tree, or diving into the lake. In truth, nearly all the goodness of Illahee originates from the land.

Illahee becomes the home of many girls for a time each summer. These old wooden cabins, our open-air dining hall, the ring around the campfire circle, these places are home. They aren’t just for the summer; They always will be. Recently I walked around camp with a group of women who were campers in the 50’s. They walked straight to their cabin. “Feels like home” they said. If the old adage that “Home is where your heart is” is true, then Camp Illahee is home for many.

I often ask older campers or staff the same question: What has kept you coming back year after year to Illahee? Nearly always, part of the answer involves a reference to the community that they have found here. They mention the friends that they never would’ve met if it had not been for camp. They talk about the counselor that sat with them when they were homesick or the best friend who lives time zones away who picks up whenever they call, no matter the time. We are social creatures who desire and need community, and I have found Illahee to be a community like no other.

What struck me about this newfound correct translation is its surprising accuracy. Within all of these words there exists a deep sense of belonging. It’s one of the biggest gifts camp gives to these girls: the chance to belong, be connected, and be part of something bigger than ourselves.

The mystery remains as to when or why “Illahee” became known as “The heavenly world.” I’ve spent some time in our archives and at the local library, and found a brochure from 1921 advertising for Camp. It says that “Illahee, in the beautiful, Indian tongue, means ‘a home by the lake.’” This makes perfect sense, as all of the cabins and activities of the original camp were centered entirely around the current swim lake and what we now call McLeod Lodge.


1921 Brevard Brochure – Camp Illahee

It continues saying:

“..With its fresh air, sunshine, wholesome recreation, and still retain the gentleness of refinement we rightly associate with the word home.”

We don’t know fully what Joe Tinsley, Hinton McLeod, or Frances McLeod were thinking in 1921 when they started a camp for girls. We can’t get in their head, nor do we know where they first heard the word “Illahee,” and who told them what it meant and where it came from. Some things are best left to mystery.

What we do know is that for over a hundred years, girls have found this place to be a glimpse of what heaven might look like. We know that tens of thousands of women have found a home in these ancient hills. And we know that each summer these campers find, create, and experience authentic community on this beautiful land in which we roam.

In the meantime we’re going to update our website to reflect this knowledge, giving honor to our name’s true origins. More importantly, we are going to continue to work hard to ensure that Illahee is a community that encourages girls to thrive.

And don’t worry… you can still call it the heavenly world.





3 responses to “Illahee: A new or maybe an old meaning?

  1. Love this, Lucas!
    We have a group of women who all went to Camp Illahee in the 70’s! We keep in touch and try to get together in a large scale once a year! Many get together more frequently! We wish each other happy birthdays with the birthday queen song! We pray for and encourage one another on a regular basis! We are moms, doctors, lawyers, nurses, medical, sales, creative, and multiple other titles! We love each other not for what we are but for who we are and the common bond we have in Illahee and what it taught us….to love and accept and encourage and find the strength in women in their strong points and their vulnerabilities! We are so different but still so connected and find a home and a security in our common bond. We teach our children the things we learned at camp and we grow strong women! When we get together we sing the pine tree song and float wish boats on whatever water source is available! We wear our old camp t shirts! We retell stories. We laugh and cry and share meals together. We are family through the bond we have!!!!
    We are hoping for a plan for another Camp reunion!!!!
    I was a camper for 5 summers, my 3 daughters all attended camp for 7 and 10+ years each.
    I was a nurse at camp for 14or 15 summers.
    My Parents chose camp for me because of connections with women that were campers and counselors at Camp Illahee that they knew!

  2. Amazing blog post Lucas! It’s the heavenly world for sure, and such a place to connect with land, home, and community. Love it and miss it and y’all!

  3. There is absolutely no way for me to articulate what Illahee means to me. It has been my heavenly world since my first summer in 1940.
    I will be hiking in Pisgah today feeling grateful to Illahee for my love of the outdoors and nature….and so thankful that our camp is is such good hands! Thank you Lucas and Gardner!

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