There is a sacred place in the Tennessee River area of northwest Alabama near the small town of Waterloo adjoining the Natchez Trace Parkway. It is a mile long rock wall - 8.5 million pounds of rock - placed one by one with incredible loving tenderness by a man honoring his great great grandmother's walk along the 1,000 mile route known as the Trail of Tears.
Te-lah-nay, which means 'Woman with Dancing Eyes" in the Yuchi (Euchee or Uchee) language, is that ancestor and Tom Hendrix, 80 is the man who wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,700 pairs of gloves and three dogs - and one old man as he likes to say with a grin - who theoretically believes that the wall contains a stone for every step she made along the Trail of Tears.
Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830 targeted the southen Native American tribes - Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee-Creek Seminoles and other smaller tribes - forcibly relocating them onto federal territory in the west. The 'Trail of Tears' consisted of an estimated 46,000 to 60,000 American Indians who traveled by foot or wagon along the 1,000 mile route with thousands of them dying during the journey.
Tom, who has become an accomplished story teller, says he was in the fourth or fifth grade when his paternal grandmother began telling him the story of his great-great-grandmother.
“My grandmother said, ‘You’re young, you listen. When you’re older, you can talk.’ That’s what I do. My grandmother made me one thing, ‘Onae.’ That’s the Euchee word for storyteller,” says Hendrix, who also answers to Stonetalker.
Te-lah-nay spent several months at the camp in Oklahoma.
"She believed she would die if she remained," Hendrix said. Te-lah-nay, like all the American Indians from the Tennessee Valley believed there was a woman in the river who sang to them. Te-lah-nay and the river were sisters.Official records in Oklahoma state that Number 59 died there on the reservation, but the truth is that one morning she just slipped away - slipped into the morning mist and began an almost five year walk back through Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi to get home to where she could once again hear her singing river sister. Tel-lah-nay's walk was a trek like no other as she was forced to endure the harsh exposure to the elements, loneliness, physical hardships, hunger, and the most dangerous risk of being captured.
Hendrix, in his best storytelling voice, recounts Te-lah-nay's reasons for making the desperate journey back to her home and the river.
"When I was born, my grandmother took my birth cord and put it in the river and that made the river my sister," Hendrix said, speaking for his ancestor. Also, Te-lah-nay had a recurring dream of her grandmother beckoning her back home.
"When I got to the nation (in Oklahoma), I listened to the river and there were no songs. I knew then, I would die."
Once back to Lauderdale County, Te-lah-nay was adopted by a white woman by the name of Ferguson who changed her name to Mary in order to have her recorded in the census. Te-lah-nay settled near Little Cypress Creek with her husband, Jonathan Levi Hipp where she began her work as a medicine woman and healer.
Tom met a Yuchi spirit woman in Oklahoma over 25 years ago and spent three days with her telling his grandmother's tale and expressing his desire to build a wall to honor her. Tom says the spirit woman was able to see through to his soul and discern that his heart was open. She advised Hendrix to think of Te-lah-nay's footsteps when he put each rock in place.
“She said, ‘We shall all pass this earth. Only the stones will remain. We honor our ancestors with stones,’” Hendrix says.Shortly after his retirement in 1983, Tom began work on the wall which he erected on a 5 acre tract near his home. He used no particular design plan nor did he use any mortar or dirt. He said:
"I would just put a stone somewhere, and if it rolled down and stopped, I'd decide it didn't want to be up there. If it stayed, it was supposed to be there."
The centerpiece of the Ishatae is without a doubt the prayer circle where Tom prays every morning. It consists of four tiers that represent birth, life, death and rebirth.
After walking the length of the wall, Charlie Two Moons, a spiritual person, explained it this way:
"The wall does not belong to you, Brother Tom. It belongs to all people. You are just the keeper. I will tell you that it is wichahpi, which means 'like the stars'. When they come, some will ask, 'Why does it bend, and why is it higher and wider in some places than in others?' Tell them it is like your great-great-grandmother's journey, and their journey through life--it is never straight."In 2000 Tom Hendrix published his book entitled If The Legends Fade telling of Te-lah-nay's jouney, the book is now in it's eighth printing.
Tom has entertained and welcomed visitors from around the world who have left such things as fool's gold from Nova Scotia, Canada; a petrified clam from the Sea of Galilee; petrified Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth and a chunk of meteorite from the heavens.
There are stones from 127 countries, territories and islands including all 50 states many of which are like the wall itself, they come with a story.
During the Great Depression, a man didn’t have money to buy a ring for his intended. He searched for three days and found a heart-shaped rock.Resources:
“He told her, ‘I can’t afford a ring, but I can give you my heart,’” Hendrix says.
That man’s widow was 94 when she walked through the monument to Te-lah-nay. She returned with her wedding rock, so it and her love story could join the wall.
If The Legends Fade - ordering information for the book
Te-lah-nay's Wall - American Profile featured article with a video I was not able to embed
Neverending legacy for Te-lah-nay - Times Daily story featured in Indigenous People's Literature
'A quiet place': Stone wall in Alabama tells powerful stories - Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal article