A hand-built, unmortared structure in Alabama commemorates a Native American woman’s quest to hear the river sing.
Written by Eugene Stockstill | Photographed by natcheztracetravel.com
The Natchez Trace will get you to the wall. The wall should make you want to find what is now known as the Tennessee River. The river runs through the magical land of The Shoals, which has lured thousands of visitors in search of its music and culture.
But long before we named any of these now well-known locales, there was a woman named Te-lah-nay.
Right off the Natchez Trace in northwest Alabama sits the Wachapi Commemorative Stone Wall, the largest unmortared wall in this country, built by hand to celebrate the life of Te-lah-nay, a Native American woman who loved the waters of what we call the Tennessee River. Wachapi is a native word that means “like the stars,” a description given to the structure for good reason.
“There are no words to describe the place,” said Trace Hendrix, son of Tom Hendrix, the man who built the wall, about the area that medicine men have blessed. “People don’t understand the euphoria they feel. I’ve had people tell me that they feel like they’ve been reborn after visiting.”
Te-lah-nay’s Yuchi tribe believed a woman lived in “The Singing River” who guided and protected travelers with her melodies. Event today, people say her singing can be heard.
“Yes, I’ve heard her,” Trace said. “It’s hard to describe. You feel it first, then you hear it. Her voice is not as loud since they built the dams.”
When the federal government forced Te-lah-nay, her sister, other Yuchi and other natives to relocate to the area now known as Oklahoma, far away from their homes, Te-lah-nay refused to stay. The Oklahoma rivers would not sing to her.
Native tradition insists that baby Te-lah-nay’s grandmother had tossed her umbilical cord into the river and thus made it her sister. And so, Te-lah-nay spent five years journeying back to her homeland in order to reunite with her sister, the river. When she completed the journey and returned, according to native tradition, she once again embodied the literal meaning of her name, “The Lady with the Dancing Eyes.”
Years later, in 1983, after her great-great grandson Tom retired from the Ford Motor Company in Sheffield, Alabama, he began to build a wall in honor of his great-great grandmother. A chance encounter with another member of the Yuchi tribe had convinced him to construct it. Assisted at times by son Trace, as well as material donations from others, Tom spent more than 30 years stacking 8 million pounds of limestone and sandstone.
“I love it when the master stonemasons come and ask me how many helpers I had,” Tom was famously quoted in a 2014 story in The New York Times. “I wore out three trucks, 22 wheelbarrows, 3,700 pairs of gloves, three dogs and one old man.”
Recorded in the Library of Congress but not an official stop on the Natchez Trace, Te-lah-nay’s Wall draws visitors from all over the world, some of whom have left their own stones to honor her memory. Pre-COVID, 100 to 300 visitors came every day. Before he died, Tom would greet visitors and share his wit and knowledge of native history with them. He also refused to publicize the wall, holding to the native conviction that those meant to find it would find it.
And the meandering, uneven two sides of the wall, which stretches just beyond one mile in length? Those represent Te-lah-nay’s jagged trip from home, as well as her adventures to get back there.
“When they come, some will ask, ‘Why does it bend, and why is it higher and wider in some places than in others?’” one native healer told Tom. “Tell them that it is like your great-great-grandmother’s journey, and their journey through life — it is never straight.”
More About the Native American Yuchi Tribe
· The word yuchi means “over yonder” or “over there sit/live.” Yuchi is sometimes spelled Euchee and Uchee.
· Descendants of the Yuchi live in present-day Oklahoma. Before the federal government’s forced relocation, Yuchi also lived in Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
· The Yuchi language is an isolate language: Unrelated to any other languages. Very few people speak the Yuchi language today.
· The word wachapi (as in the Wachapi Commemorative Stone Wall) means “like the stars” and denotes a transcendent quality in something or someone.
· The Yuchi referred to the body of water now known as the Tennessee River as nunnuhsae, or “the Singing River.”
· The 2013 documentary “Muscle Shoals” also offers a quick, lovely glimpse into this world that Tom Hendrix described as “ishatay … a special place, a holy place … a place of music and people.”
· The Wachapi Commemorative Stone Wall is located at 13890 Lauderdale County 8, Florence, Alabama 35633 (about 90 miles from Tupelo). It is open daily from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.