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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, March 2017

A typical conversation with Tom Hendrix, the Stonetalker, now dead at 83

by: Brent Raynes

Tom Hendrix deeply affected the lives of thousands of people from all over the world, and in a very positive and unique way. Over thirty years ago, he single handedly began constructing one of the largest unmortared stone walls in all of the United States, reportedly about 1.25 miles long and in places as high as six feet. In addition, it's the largest memorial ever built in honor of a Native American woman.

Often called “Tom's Wall,” Tom told one reporter that he wished people wouldn't call it that, that it was his great-great grandmother's wall. “It's all in her honor,” he said. “It's 'Ishatae,” a word that means “a quiet place” in the Euchee language.

Tom lived at Threets Crossroads, 13890 County Road 8 to be exact, just off of the Natchez Trace Parkway, at mile marker 338, about three miles south into Alabama after crossing the stateline from Tennessee. Tom was occasionally asked who his hero was. As a golfer some have expected to hear that it was Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, but no. It was his great-great grandmother Mary Hipp, whose Euchee Indian name was Te-lah-nay.

It’s hard to believe that Tom was into his 80s. He stayed so active. His daily routine was doing some outdoors lifting and moving heavy rocks about on his property like a man half his age, along with some golfing now and then. His mind was very focused and he was always jovial with a wit that was as sharp as a tack. He talked about distant events in the past like they were yesterday. Reflecting back to his childhood, Tom described how his grandmother had told him many fascinating stories about Te-lah-ney. “My grandmother told me, ‘If you ever get to heaven you’ll know your great-great grandmother. Her eyes will be different.’” Tom added, “There were three things they always told me about her. She made this incredible walk, she was a healer, and she had eyes that were very different.”

The “incredible walk” Tom referred to was his great-great grandmother’s journey on foot to Oklahoma and back to Alabama! During the grim and infamous Indian Removal of the early 1800s, she was one of thousands banished to Oklahoma. “In 1839, they thought they had removed all of the native people through this area,” Tom explained. “The Trail of Tears had come through and they had moved over in Colbert County all of the Chickasaws. They thought. But all of a sudden, they started finding little pockets of Indians hiding. So they decided that they were going to have a mop up operation in Lauderdale County and they built a stockade about where the harbor is now in Florence. It was a joint thing between the U.S. Government and the local militia.”

“It was against the law to be a Native American in the state of Alabama. So they gathered them all up and in the meantime, they found two young girls hiding in a root cellar of an old abandoned house, about where the present day Comcast Cable Company is. So they gathered them all up, put tags on them. The two young girls were numbers 59 and 60. They shipped them from here down to the vicinity of Savannah, Tennessee. They were taken over land to the Indian Nations. From the time she left, she was number 59. It took her four to five years to make the round trip. She walked all the way back home.”

The Euchee language is a unique one. “There is no language that is kin to it,” Tom explained. “The Cherokee speak a dialect of the Algonquin language. The Creek, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw people speak a Muskogean language. So the Euchee language has no cousins. It’s quite possibly the oldest language in America.”

Tom had the great privilege and honor, over thirty years ago, of sitting with a Euchee lady who quite possibly changed his life and put him on a different journey. Through documents that Tom has had the privilege of possessing over the years, he has saved ten of his great-great grandmother’s children’s stories and practically all of her herbal medicines.

The Euchee woman had told Tom that Te-lay-nay meant “woman with the dancing eyes.” Tom remarked, “All this time, my grandmother had told me about her eyes.” The Euchee lady also said, “Oh, she was a healer. She could look inside of you.”

“I hadn’t said a word to her about the healing part,” Tom pointed out. “This is how I knew she really knew what she was talking about.”

The revelations continued. “When she was born her grandmother put her birthing cord in that river,” the Euchee woman explained. “That made the river her sister.” That river was what we know today as the Tennessee River. “We called it The Singing River,” the Euchee woman told Tom. “We believed there was a young woman who lived in the river and sang beautiful songs to us there.” Tom told me that in Euchee the Singing River is Nun-nuh-sae.

(My wife Joan in the prayer circle)

As a side note, I told Tom that I had heard that the Pascagoula River in Mississippi is called the Singing River, and of an Indian legend associated with it and of what the legend described as a woman that sang to a tribe there. Tom explained that there were different variations on this story, and noted, “I talked to a person of Natchez ancestry and she said that the woman that came up that river came from the great salty lake. She got tired of the salt in the lake, the Gulf of Mexico. She came up into that fresh water and she was so happy that she started to sing down there.”

In this conversation with this Euchee elder, Tom mentioned how his grandmother had a small circle of stones near her well in Cloverdale, Alabama. “Brother Tom, you and I shall pass from this earth,” Tom remembered that she explained. “We honor our ancestors with stones.”

Upon returning home Tom announced to his wife that he was going to build a stone wall and dedicate it to his great-great grandmother and to all Native American women. Looking around he told me, “What you see here is probably one of the largest unmortared stone walls in the United States.” It certainly wasn’t hard to imagine. For hundreds of feet it stretches on. “There’s a rock here from every state in the Union and 127 countries, territories and islands,” Tom told me at the time. [Just a couple of weeks before it had been 126, but Tom showed me a small rock that a man had just brought him from the Antarctic]. At the time of this interview a few years back, Tom told me that the Wall weighed about five and a half million pounds, and Tom was quick to add that he hadn’t “counted them up in six months.” In recent news reports I read that it is now estimated to be about 8.5 million pounds of stone. “When I first started I went down and weighed the truck empty at the cotton gin and then I weighed it full, so I kept up with my loads,” Tom explained.

People have come from all over to visit and see the incredible wall that Tom built. He had told me that he had had representatives from 45 different Native American tribes from all across the U.S. and from as far away as Alaska, as well as aboriginal people from Australia, New Zealand and even the Solomon Islands, in addition to many people from different major religions, including visitors from the Church of England. A number of local ministers have visited the wall and told him that it’s a good place to prepare their sermons. He recalled how one minister was walking along the wall with his parishioners when he told Tom that he felt “electrical impulses” and was concerned about electricity being somewhere in that area. “There’s no electrical lines here,” Tom tried to reassure him. “I just smiled,” Tom stated. “He had no idea what he was experiencing. Several people have experienced something in that same spot. That’s where they feel those impulses.”

In addition to the huge stone wall, the site also contains a beautiful stone prayer circle. “It was designed by a Lakota spiritual person,” Tom says. He traveled all the way from South Dakota to visit the wall and to talk with Tom, because he stated that he had a vision about Tom building this wall many years earlier! What happened was that an Indian who had been in the area participating in a Pow Wow had visited Tom’s wall and upon returning to South Dakota mentioned the wall he had seen to the spiritual person. “He described the wall just as plain to us as could be,” the Indian told Tom. “That doesn’t surprise us, but it does surprise other people. We’re used to his dreams and visions that turn out just right.”

When this spiritual person visited Tom he told him, “You’re just the keeper of the wall. This wall does not belong to you. Never ever think it does. Every person that comes, it belongs to them as much as it does you. The Great Spirit had you to do this. Now wichalpi…” Tom asked, “Could I ask what that means, Grandfather?” He said, “Yes. You’ve got stones in here like stars in the heavens.”

About three months later, Tom received a long distance phone call from South Dakota. It was a message from the spiritual person. Tom was instructed to “create a prayer circle for people.” “He told me how to build it. He said, ‘I will send people to make sure that it’s prepared right.’ …They would come through and they would measure it with funny looking sticks- two sticks – several feet long, but they curved out. And how they measured it I don’t know, but they’d say ‘No.’ …I’d have to tear it down.” Tom had to build it several times. “Then when they did tell me that it was right they told me that this spiritual person had been testing me,” Tom added.

During one of my visits over the years to the wall, there was one time when a pick-up truck pulled up and two young girls got out, removed a rock from the wall, and then got back in and a man behind the wheel drove off. We stood at the mouth of Tom’s driveway as they drove by, and Tom recalled that they waved at us too as they passed by.

But then the next morning Tom’s phone rang. It was a man saying that he wanted to bring Tom a rock, which happens a lot to Tom, but soon that very same truck from the day before pulled up. “God forgave me last night and I’ve come for your forgiveness,” Tom recalls the man saying. “I’m that fella who stopped here. That was my niece and daughter jumped out of the truck and stole a rock off your wall.” He described how they had heard “that placed was haunted” and now they were believers. He claimed that when they arrived home he had placed the rock on top of their television set and around supper time the refrigerator went out. After supper they turned the TV on and it “blew up.” His wife ordered him to “get that blamed stone out of here.” He added, “I went out there the next morning and I had two flats on my truck. I got those things fixed just as soon as I could and went in and called you and here I am. Will you forgive me?” Tom said “yeah,” and the man replied, “God bless you. You’ll never see me again.” The man was from near my neck of the woods, from Wayne Country, Tennessee!

The majority of visitors to Tom’s wall describe it as a peaceful and spiritual place. When I asked Tom how people had described it to him over the years, he said, “Mostly it’s just a healing effect. Especially of women. Men often times come here and they look at the wall as the work I’ve done in it, but I’d say that at least 98 percent of the women who come here look at it as a spiritual place. And it is a spiritual place, and it’s one of these things that it’s hard for me to describe. You cannot describe the wall. You have to come here.”

My wife Joan and I visited Tom and the wall off and on from early on, and we had actually met Tom a few years before he began constructing it. We’ve seen a lot of incredible changes through the years. It’s hard to imagine that one man single handedly moved all of these large stones around by himself. I asked Tom, “Are you ever going to complete the wall?” He replied, “Basically it’s complete. But there will always be something that I’ll always be working on.” After uttering those words, I continued to see changes from visit to visit, and to me they were often major changes, rearrangements of large sections of wall, or even new rock walls altogether. Tom always kept busy!

Tom told us that one day when he got to heaven that he imagined that he would find himself being beckoned into a perfect circle by his great-great grandmother and that when he walked up to her she would say to him, “Ah grandson, I’ve been waiting for you. Now I’ll tell you the rest of the stories.”

We imagine Tom is now having the time of his life.

Tom Hendrix wrote a beautiful book back in 2000 about his great-great grandmother’s life and her journey to Oklahoma and back, based upon the stories and details that Tom has been able to put together. The book is entitled, If The Legends Fade.

Sunday, June 16, 2024