Wichahpi Stone Wall Memorial

Wichahpi - Tom & MeNear Mile Marker 338
Natchez Trace Parkway
and Hwy. 20/Savannah Hwy.
13890 County Road 8
Florence, AL
GPS coordinates:  34°56’51.24″N  —  87°49’20.15″W

NatchezTraceTravel.com

Tom Hendrix and me (Nov. 2014) – This turned out to be my favorite stop along the entire Trace – I was completely enchanted by the tribute Tom has built here to his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay, a Yuchi healer. It is the largest memorial to a Native American woman in the United States and each stone was laid individually and with love.  Tom started this tribute over 30 years ago and it was his intent to lay a stone to honor every step she had to make to return to her beloved Alabama homeland after being removed to Oklahoma during the infamous Trail of Tears.  It is estimated the meandering wall consists of over 9 million pounds of stone.

I was honored to meet Tom here and hear some of his stories. This is truly a magical place and an amazing man.  I took so many pictures here, Tom told me his name for me was “Shadow Catcher.” I loved that!  He said his name is Stone Talker – so appropriate!

From his driveway, there are two paths and he says the path to the left represents her walk to Oklahoma and the path to the right represents her return home.  He says, “I wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs and one old man.”

Wichahpi Path 1

This is not just a boring straight line wall, but differing levels, shadows and angles add to the ambiance of the area as you walk along, wondering what awaits at each bend.  When Tom got the idea to honor his great-great grandmother, he said “She was a very special lady – I could not build an ordinary wall because she did not make an ordinary journey.”  He wanted his tribute to her to be meaningful no matter how long it took him to build, just like she was determined to make it home no matter how long it took or how many difficulties she encountered along the way.  “She made it one step at a time, and I built this wall one stone at a time.”

He was told by a full-blood Cherokee woman to “honor ancestors with stones – stones don’t pass away.”  He was also told by an elder of the Yuchi tribe that “All things shall pass. Only the stones will remain.”

Wichahpi - alcove

There are little alcoves to sit and ponder and at some of these, I felt a distinct cool rush of air – not like a spooky haunted house feel, but a refreshing reminder that spirits also choose to reside here. I asked Tom what he attributed those cool spots to and he said, “If all great mysteries were solved, how boring life would be.”  Couldn’t argue with that one.

Wichahpi - Path 2

The paths consist of two parallel walls made of limestone and sandstone rocks.  When he told his wife, Doreen, what he wanted to do, she said she thought it was a splendid idea and she recommended that he lay each stone individually to represent each step of Te-lah-nay’s journey, so that’s precisely what he did.

Wichahpi - Path 3

Sometimes the walls were built around the trees so as not to remove the natural elements.

Wichahpi - wall depth

Here you can see the depth of the wall in places.

Wichahpi - Prayer ribbon

There are prayer ribbons scattered around as seen here.  Tom says you can add your prayers here and that once a year when “they are full of prayers” local tribes carry them out west (I assume to be released to heaven for answers).

Wichahpi - gifts on wall

Along the way you can see gifts and shells left by visitors.  At the front there are stones and artifacts sent by visitors from throughout the world.  Be sure to ask Tom to show you this collection because there truly are some amazing things here.

Wichahpi - big tree

Given my love of big trees, this was one of my favorite spots.

Wichahpi Music circle

Music Circle – I would so love to hear the music of the Native American flutes and drums played here!

Wichahpi Prayer Circle

Prayer Circle – I spent a good deal of time here just sitting peacefully and soaking it all in.  I expressed gratitude that I was able to see and experience such a special place, and I prayed for the soul of Te-lah-nay, confident her spirit has found peace at last and that she is pleased with her tribute.

When I finished walking the path a couple of times and met up with Tom again, I inexplicably started crying and told him I was just overwhelmed and I just couldn’t help the tears.  Tom hugged me and said this is a special place to many who visit here for reasons that relate to their own lives even if they don’t totally understand why.

Wichahpi bench

I told him I had mixed feelings about being here – I was filled with admiration for what he had done, but also with sadness that it was necessary to begin with.  The fact that a young girl of 18 was so rudely removed from her homeland and that she was so determined to return that she walked 700 miles over five years saying “I have to go home to my river and ancestors” – it was one of the most inspiring things I had ever heard of.  The ID tag given her by the government said she was #59.  Out of 55,000 removed, she is the only one that can prove she came back.  It took her five years to get back home sometime between 1844-1845.

He told me there were three important facts that made her determined to come back home: (1) Her birthing cord had been placed in the river by her grandmother; (2) she felt her grandmother calling her home every day; and (3) the rivers and streams in Oklahoma were silent and no other river was her beloved “Singing River.”  I swear I could just feel her heartache and yearning and it moved me immensely.

Wichahpi Spirit Faces

Spirit Faces in Stone – Tom says he still hears the nearby Tennessee River sing to him almost daily. Tom told me that when he meets his great-great grandmother again, she will say, “Come here, grandson, and now I’ll tell you the rest of the stories.”

Tom obviously enjoys sharing his feat with appreciative visitors and when I asked him what he expects from visitors, he said only that they treat it here the same as if it were a tribute to their own great-great grandmother.  He also told me that while everyone’s experience here is meaningful to him, he treasures most the reactions of indigenous people who tell him they feel his great-great-grandmother’s presence there.

When you go, remember, this is not a formal stop along the Trace and is not maintained or supported in any way by the National Park Service.  And while Tom welcomes visitors, keep in mind there are no restrooms and parking is alongside the road and not abundant.  I wouldn’t want to bring my 35′ RV there and try to park it because it might interfere with neighbors’ access.

If the Legends Fade bookTom wrote this book “If the Legends Fade” and may have some copies available at the site now.  I ordered mine directly from him since he was out of stock at that time and that can be done here: If the Legends Fade.com.

I was really fascinated with this whole story and wanted to hear more and I truly enjoyed this book with more in-depth details. By the time I was finished with it, I admired Te-lah-nay even more, if that were possible!

“Come, make the long walk with a young Indian girl who lived her dream–a dream to come home.”

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Other articles with more info:

Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall (Te-lah-nay’s Wall) – Natchez Trace Travel.com
In northwest Alabama, Tom Hendrix has been building a stone wall for over 30 years in memory of his great-great-grandmother’s journey. His great-great-grandmother Te-lah-nay was part of the Yuchi Indian tribe that lived near here along the Tennessee River in the 1800s. Her journey began when she and her sister Whana-le were sent to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma as part of the removal of native peoples from the southeast. But, that was only the beginning of her journey. Her tribe called the Tennessee River the Singing River because they believed a woman who lived in the river sang to them. When Te-lah-nay arrived in Oklahoma she said the streams and rivers did not sing to her and she longed for home. After spending one winter in Oklahoma she decides to head home. Even though she is alone the lessons that her grandmother taught her as a little girl help her overcome every peril and obstacle along the way. After enough adventure to literally fill a book she returns home and to the Singing River.

Off Alabama’s Beaten Path, Tribute to a Native American’s Journey Home (NY Times) – Mr. Hendrix, a youthful 80-year-old retiree with a full head of white hair, engages visitors with solemn wit. “I’m a firm believer that you cannot see America from I-65… You’ve got to get off the beaten path to see what crazy people like me are doing.” Mr. Hendrix does little to publicize his monument. “Tom has said that if people find it on their own, they were meant to come,” Ms. Stanfield said. “He’s never been one to ask for brochures or help getting the word out. It’s one of those truly ‘if you build it, they will come’ attractions.”  According to family lore, soon after Te-lah-nay was born, her grandmother placed her umbilical cord in the Tennessee River, making the river her sister. That connection, along with her dreams, Mr. Hendrix said, lured her home.

Wall in Lauderdale honoring Native American woman contains 8.5 million pounds of stone (AL.com) – Some tribes refer to the wall as “wichahpi,” meaning “like the stars,” while others call it “ishatae,” or “holy or spiritual place.”

Wichahpi Stone Wall – A Unique Memorial to A Native American Woman (Armchair Travelogue) – Charlie Two Moons, a spiritual person, said: “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.”

The Great Wall of Alabama (Portraits in Creativity) – Hendrix strides to the end of his driveway and welcomes visitors with a Yuchi Indian greeting: “Aglaysaha—it’s a good day.” Tom’s passion and spirit has transformed an ephemeral journey into a living memory.  Hendrix says, “I have only one request: look with your third eye,” and he pats his heart.

The Heart: Stone Talker (Alabama Chanin) – 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. 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 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.

Land Art: The Great Wall of Alabama (Departures) – Though little known outside Florence, it is a work of spectacular scale and power, rivaling the greatest pieces of American land art.

Shadows and Light: Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall (Professional Southerner) – I asked him how far the site is from Te-lah-nay’s “Singing River” and he directed me nine miles southwest to the place where the Natchez Trace crosses the Tennessee.  Mr. Hendrix says that the song from the river is more faint now that the river has been tamed and industry crowds much of its shores. But there is no sign of these things at the spot where the Natchez Trace bridge crosses the water; Mr. Hendrix says he still hears the river’s song almost every day.

Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall (Grits) – The path is divided into her journey to Oklahoma and her journey back, one on either side of the driveway.

Stone Wall Honors Ancestor (The Spectrum) – Hendrix … is trying to disprove the belief that no one ever returned from the Trail of Tears.

YouTube video interviews with Tom Hendrix

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