I used to go sit at Tom Hendrix’ wall to think, particularly on days when I thought I couldn’t take running my business anymore. I would ask Mr. Hendrix over and over again, “Where do you find the passion and will to continue creating 25, 26, 27 years into your work?” He would patiently listen to me, laugh, and tell me to go sit in the prayer circle. It always worked. Eventually the wall came to change my entire life – but that is a story for later. Come back in a few weeks to read the rest. This is the story of “The Wall,” as I know it.
About 14 miles as the crow flies from The Factory, adjacent to the Natchez Trace Parkway, you can find the home of Shoals native Tom Hendrix and the site of the Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, a larger-than-life memorial that he has been building for over 30 years. Even more amazing than the wall itself is the fact that, at 80 years old, he is still adding to it. Before 9:30 yesterday morning, Hendrix had already hauled two truckloads of stones from the local quarry. He passionately stacks stone after stone to honor his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi Indian and a courageous woman.
Growing up, Tom heard the stories of her life from his own grandmother. He was told how 17 year-old Te-lah-nay and her sister were forced westward with the rest of the native people along the Trail of Tears and taken to Indian Territory, in what is present day Muskogee, Oklahoma. The Yuchi people of Alabama believed that the Tennessee River was home to a young woman who sang beautiful songs. They called it “The Singing River.” Te-lah-nay heard no songs from the waters in Oklahoma. She felt strongly that she must return home. So in 1839, she began a difficult, five-year journey home to Alabama, to her “Singing River.”
Mr. Hendrix was captivated by her perilous journey and wanted to honor her. A conversation with a Yuchi woman helped him determine how best to pay tribute to his great-great grandmother: by building a stone wall to commemorate her life. He was told, “One step at a time, one stone at a time. Lay a stone for every step she made… We shall pass this earth. Only the stones will remain. We honor our ancestors with stones.” For over three decades, Tom has –added millions of pounds of stones to the wall – and he has no intention of ever stopping.
Hendrix, also known as the Stone Talker, believes his most important role is that of storyteller. He uses the wall in literal and figurative ways to tell the story of his great-great grandmother. One portion of the wall represents her journey from Lauderdale County westward to Oklahoma and another represents her five-year passage home to the Alabama. Visiting with Mr. Hendrix, you see the pride and honor he has for his great-great grandmother and his respect for the Yuchi and Indian Nations.
The stone wall holds a place in the heart of the Shoals community, but it has also reached much further: there are stones from 127 countries, territories, and islands. Many are brought by visitors themselves who come from all over the world. Some are mailed to him. He jokes that he has the heaviest mail in all of Lauderdale County. Upon visiting the wall, Charlie Two Moons, a spiritual person, told Mr. Hendrix, “The wall does not belong to you, Brother Tom. It belongs to all people. You are just the keeper.”
The massive structure is not only a monument, but a masterful work of art. To build the wall, Tom says, ” I’ve wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,300 pair of gloves, three dogs, and one old man.” It is the largest monument to a woman in the United States, specifically an American Indian woman. It is also classified as one of the Top 10 Environmental Arts in the United States, is the longest un-mortared wall in the United States, and is catalogued in the Library of Congress. The wall is the only non-church structure listed as one of Alabama’s Top Spiritual Places. But honors and accolades cannot begin to describe the emotional power of the wall – that can only be experienced firsthand.
Pocketed in the twists and turns of the stone wall are a prayer circle and a music circle. It is home to fertility objects and to miracle stones. It is a healing wall- a sacred and spiritual space for those who visit. It is a place of sanctuary, of reflection and meditation. Made of more than just hard work and stones, it is made of dreams and journeys. Because he believes that the wall belongs to all people, Tom welcomes visitors to come and experience Te-lah-nay’s journey and to honor our ancestors.
Mr. Hendrix, a dear friend, has written a beautiful book, If the Legends Fade, that shares the journey of his great-great grandmother. It is available to purchase on his website – all of the proceeds benefit the Yuchi Nation in hopes of preserving their heritage and language.
Alabama Chanin would not be the same company that it is today without our friend the Stone Talker – who has always given me a place to sit and think.
An invaluable asset to Alabama Chanin, this community, our nation, and to all that know him or have passed through his masterpiece: Tom Hendrix – a part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
Photos of the wall and reporting by our newest team member Erin Stephenson – welcome aboard Erin! Portrait of Tom Hendrix above by Robert Rausch at GAS Design Center.
Come back in two weeks to find out how a Platypus, a crystal, Mr. Hendrix’s wall, and a little girl named Kashateee changed my life. xoNatalie