By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
THREETS CROSSROADS, Ala. – It’s best to save the prayer circle for last when you visit Tom’s Wall.
“I wish people wouldn’t call it that, but they do,” says Tom Hendrix, 79. “It’s not my wall. It’s my great-great-grandmother’s wall. It’s all in her honor. It’s ‘Ishatae.’”
In the Euchee Indian language, ishatae means “a quiet place,” and that’s a good way to describe the rock wall Hendrix has devoted 24 years of his life to build. He’s constructed it by hand, one stone at a time, with no mortar or sand.
If you walk the dirt paths along 8.5 million pounds of rock, you’ll see the limestone Hendrix pulled from the Tennessee River, and you’ll see the darker sandstone he took from the fields of Lauderdale County, Ala.
You’ll see the beads, tobacco pouches, keys, coins and donations past visitors left for the wall to absorb.
You’ll walk 100 yards, another 100 yards, then another and another, and the depth of what Hendrix has done will slowly sink through your hurly-burly, 21st-century mind.
At some point, you’ll start to feel the spirit of the place, and you’ll be ready for the prayer circle.
Hendrix will ask you to leave your cellphone and car keys and other tools of secular life behind. You’ll step into a symbol of birth, life, death and rebirth, and Hendrix says there’s a 99.9 percent chance your heart will open wide.
And maybe for the first time since you arrived at Ishatae, Tom’s Wall or whatever you want to call it, you’ll feel compelled to look away from the hard-placed stones and up toward the trees and the sky waiting high above you, as always.
“Most people can’t come out here and absorb it in 20 or 30 minutes,” Hendrix says. “You’ve got to let it soak in. You’ve got to let it into your heart.”
It’s not exactly true to say the wall tells a story because it tells many stories and attracts more, as people leave fool’s gold from Nova Scotia, Canada, or a petrified clam from the Sea of Galilee.
One special story at the center makes the others possible.
Hendrix was in fourth or fifth grade when his grandmother told him about his great-great-grandmother. Late in life, the woman was known as Mary; earlier than that she was called No. 59; but at the beginning she was Te-lah-nay. In the Euchee language, the name means “Woman with Dancing Eyes.”
During the 1830s, American Indians were driven out of the southeastern United States and sent to Oklahoma. Thousands of men, women and children died on the Trail of Tears.
Hendrix dedicated a section of wall to them. It’s 4 feet tall and starts out at about 25 feet wide. As you walk, the wall gets thinner and thinner, until it’s about 4 feet across at the end.
“They’re dying, all the way to Oklahoma,” Hendrix says.
His great-great-grandmother was probably in her late teens in 1839. She and her sister were among the last American Indian remnants in northwest Alabama. They were found in a root cellar, given tags with No. 59 and No. 60 and put into a stockade. Eventually, they joined the tribes in Oklahoma.
The Euchee Indians believe a woman lives in the Tennessee River and she sings to them. Hendrix says he believes that now, and No. 59, Te-lah-nay, believed it back then.
“She listened to all the rivers and streams she could find in Oklahoma, and there were no songs,” Hendrix says. “She said her sister was like a wildflower, who would grow anywhere, but my great-great-grandmother wasn’t like that.”
According to official records in Oklahoma, No. 59 died.
In reality, she walked a crooked path through Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi to get back home to the singing river. Hendrix says the whole journey, there and back, took roughly five years.
“She had to walk beside the white people’s paths,” Hendrix says. “She knew if they found her, they would hang her. Imagine this girl, this Indian girl, hiding in the wilderness. What must she have thought?”
Hendrix has seen the metal No. 59 tag in northwest Alabama, and he’s read the diary of Wiley B. Edwards, a Methodist minister in Alabama who sought treatment for stomach trouble from Mary, a woman with a thorough understanding of medicinal herbs.
Hendrix relied on Edwards’ diary and his grandmother’s stories to write “If the Legends Fade,” his book about Te-lah-nay’s ordeal.
“The reason they didn’t hang her is because she was curing people with her medicine,” Hendrix says.
She wasn’t legally allowed to marry a white man, but she met Jonathan Levi Hipp from Dennis or Golden. It was their granddaughter who told Hendrix the stories.
“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.
About a quarter-century ago, Hendrix met a Euchee spirit woman in Oklahoma who looked right through him. He didn’t even try to describe the three days he spent with her and how profoundly they affected him.
“I’m not the same man,” he says.
He spoke about his great-great-grandmother’s story and his desire to build a wall. She saw that his heart was open, and told him to think of Te-lah-nay’s footsteps when he put each rock into place.
“She said, ‘We shall all pass this earth. Only the stones will remain. We honor our ancestors with stones,’” Hendrix says.
When you’re walking along the wall, you might mentally picture Hendrix with sweat dripping down his face as he places a piece of limestone. Or maybe you’ll imagine his breath freezing with each exhale while he toils for six, eight or 10 hours a day.
Hendrix would call that a mistake. It’s not Tom’s Wall. It is Ishatae, “a quiet place.” It is Te-lah-nay’s Wall.
“One time, I’d worked out here all day. It got down to 12 degrees. It was sleeting and snowing. I went in the house and ate a warm meal and got in my warm bed,” he says. “I thought about her. She couldn’t do that. She was out in the sleet and snow, walking. Are you kidding me? I came back out the next day. I didn’t care if it was 8 below. I was going to work on that wall.”
The wall won’t be finished while Hendrix is alive. People have given him petrified Tyrannosaurus Rex teeth from the past, and a chunk of a meteorite from the heavens.
“I’ve got stones from 127 countries, territories and islands, and all 50 states,” he says.
They aren’t mere rocks. They’re like the wall itself; they’re stories.
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.
“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.
You’ll want to ask Hendrix about the fascinating collection of stones from around the world. You’ll be amazed by the variety and the stories that go with them.
Then you’ll want to take your own stroll along the limestone and sandstone wall, all 8.5 million jagged pounds of it.
You might start to think “fascinating,” “amazing” and “awesome” are puny words, wiped clean of their ability to describe.
You might find silence where your internal dialogue normally babbles on.
When you’re ready, the prayer circle will be waiting, along with the trees and the sky high above you, as always.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
VISITORS ARE INVITED to stop by the wall Tom Hendrix built between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. seven days a week.
IF YOU’RE HEADING NORTH on the Natchez Trace, turn right just before mile marker 338. Hendrix’s mailbox is about 400 yards on the right.
IN ADDITION, visit ifthelegendsfade.com to buy a copy of his book, “If the Legends Fade,” for $17. A DVD, “The Stonetalker’s Story,” is available for $15. His email address is email@example.com.
Tom Hendrix went through 27 wheelbarrows to build his stone wall, and one stood above the rest.
“Fred was the best,” Hendrix says. “He hauled maybe 1 million pounds of rock.”
Fred was held together with baling wire and duct tape when Hendrix had to make a painful decision.
“I gave my wife a list of people I wanted her to invite to the retirement party,” he says.
She put out the good silver and the fancy tablecloths in honor of Fred the wheelbarrow, who attended the big day.
“I put him at the head of the table, and I got a tie to put on him,” Hendrix says. “You can imagine the reaction to that rusted, old wheelbarrow.”
TOM HENDRIX is one of the organizers of “Oka Kapassa: Return to Coldwater,” a gathering of American Indian craftspeople and performers.
THE FREE EVENT will be Sept. 9-10 in Spring Park in Tuscumbia, Ala. For information, call (800) 344-0783, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.