Tennessee

Number 59’s Wall

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Published on Peak Surfer on July 24, 2016

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— Te-lah-nay

 

When we first published this essay in September of 2009, our blog was in its infancy and to this day the post has received only 219 reads. Now, in 2016, with the dog days of summer upon us, we are setting off to find a nice beach somewhere and find it the perfect opportunity to repost this story, one of our personal favorites and one we shall tell our granddaughter some day. Likely we will take her to the Wall when we do.
 
The Wall came to pass from a series of events in the Nineteenth Century, beginning with the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which was opposed by our local Congressman of that time, David Crockett of Tennessee. A lawsuit for the Cherokee Nation reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832 and Justice John Marshall ruled in Worcester v. Georgia, (31 U.S. [6 Pet.] 515) that an indigenous nation was a "distinct community" with sovereign self-government and the power to engage in treaties with the United States.
 
President Andrew Jackson wrote that “the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate.” He sent General Winfield Scott to effect the clearances while Congress busied itself passing fake treaties to paper over the ethnic cleansing.
 
Ewashnay-e-e-mello
 
A little girl named Tah-nan-kay was living with her people in the Euchee Nation of Northern Alabama at that time. They called themselves Tsoyaha yuchi, “the Children of the Sun from faraway.” Ironically, the Euchee had fought alongside of Andrew Jackson at the battle of Callabee Creek, in the Indian Wars of 1814, and were praised by the General for their gallantry and valor.
 
 
The Euchee language is a linguistic isolate, not known to be related to any other language, but there are similarities to ancient Hebrew and the Bat Creek Stone (Smithsonian Collection), removed from an East Tennessee mound (since plowed flat), contains a Semitic inscription of the first or second century C.E. which translates "For the Judeans." Carbon-dating has confirmed the linguistic dating.
 
We know that the Euchee were descendents of the original Mississipian mound builders, that they were decimated by European disease following contact with DeSoto (1540) and Pardo (1567) expeditions, and that their widely scattered villages were the consequence of that decimation and of being on the losing side of conflicts with in-migrating Muskhogean, Iroquoian, and Algonkian peoples.
 
The Euchee are now the oldest recognizable residents of the Southeast. There are only 7 native speakers left.
Tah-nan-kay and her sister, Whana-le watched from the bushes where their father had hid them when the whites, led by Hairy Face, who drank from a jug and walked crooked, came to their wasi. Hairy Face killed their family before their eyes, but, guided by their grandmother, the sisters, aged about 16 and 14, reached a canoe and went down the Singing River to the Muscle Shoals. There they were captured, removed to a stockade, and then put aboard a Navy keelboat going to Arkansas, with 20 Chicasaws, 12 Creeks, 11 Choctaws and 30 Cherokees. 
 
They were given necklaces with brass tags bearing numbers. Tah-nan-kay and Whana-le were given 59 and 60, which they understood to be their new names, the names the Shiny Buttons called them. They said the canoe was so large they could not hear the Woman in the Singing River. From West Memphis, they joined the long walk to Oklahoma. Many stories are told of that forced winter march, and of the more than 4,000 who died, and they will not be recounted here.

 

 

We have an artist friend, Bernice Davidson, who has done a series of public art monuments to the Trail of Tears. In one mural she prepared for Lawrenceburg, Tennessee,  she shows a long line of bedraggled men, women and children, some of them in manacles, being frog-marched through town by mounted cavalry. In every window and doorway there are white residents looking on, and they are crying. Those tears are not being shed by the proud and honorable peoples being marched through the town. They are being shed by the citizens forced to witness in shock and horror what their own government is capable of.

 

 
After a winter or more in Oklahoma, Number 59 resolved to return home. She told her younger sister that she had visited all the rivers and creeks in that place and they were silent. She did not know the birds. She was not a flower that could bloom in that place, like her sister was, she said. She had spoken to her grandmother in her dreams, and her grandmother had told her to return to the Singing River.
 
When the snows melted, she left Oklahoma and walked back. In her dreams, her grandmother told her to mark where the Blue Star rose, and to go that way under cover of dark, avoiding the roads and settlements, and especially the dogs around them. The hardest part about crossing creeks was not the swim, but getting through the cane breaks on the banks, which often had nests of the snakes that drum with their tails.
 
She observed a fox, who her grandmother had told her was very smart. The fox picked up a cane in its mouth and waded slowly into the river. The bugs on the fox moved up to the cane and out onto its dry ends to keep from drowning. Then the fox dropped the cane and swam back to the shore. 
 
Number 59 told her grandchildren many years later that she spent some months with a family who took her in at their settlement near the warm water (Hot Springs), and then, after she went around the “firefly village” (Little Rock), she met a Natchez Indian woman, named Wachetto, who had married a white settler named Pryor Donelson. Number 59 stayed with the Donelsons that winter. They arranged for a ferryman they knew to take her to Batesville, Mississippi, and from there she kept walking east. 
 
After she left, the Donelson’s boy, Jacob, discovered a small circular wall of stones behind the barn. Inside the wall there was a stone with the name of each member of the Donelson family, and one for Te-lah-nay, with the Euchee symbol of remembrance. 
 
 
 
Eventually, after more than two years on the trail, she heard the sound of the Night Singer (whipporwill) and Rain Crow (yellow-billed cuckoo) and she knew she was nearly home. Already there were many new white settlements in the 25 million acres of confiscated lands. When she found her home, she sat by the bank and listened to the low voice of the Woman in the River. After a journey of more than 700 miles, “I’ve come home, Grandmother,” she said. 
 
Wichahpi
 
This story was told to us by her great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, who sat on a folding chair inside the garage behind his house, as the rain fell in torrents. He showed us a basket woven by a Euchee in Oklahoma, and how precise the weaving was. We were just off the Natchez Trace in Lauderdale, County, Alabama, about 50 miles from The Farm. The story Tom told came from his grandmother and his uncle. 
 
He says he is not much of a storyteller. Tom’s Euchee name means the Stonetalker. For much of his life, he has been building a wall to remember Te-lah-nay. The wall is actually two massive walls, running nearly parallel, for more than a quarter mile through the forest. The outer wall, representing the Trail of Tears, is very straight and broad – 16 feet or more at the start, tapering to 10 feet, then 8 feet, then nothing. It ends in a tapered hook. The inner wall, representing the trail back for Number 59, is more idiosyncratic, weaving around trees, with alcove seats, prayer circles and small chapels, and many special gifts that have been left in the wall.
 
Stonetalker, now age 77, told us that each stone has been picked up at least three times. Once in the field, once from his truck, once from his wheelbarrow. He has been through many wheelbarrows, and his favorite, the one that lived longest, was named Fred and when Fred retired he had a special retirement party, dressed in a necktie and party hat. Fred is buried in the wall.
 
Between the parallel walls Tom has left some low stumps in the path. He says he leaves the stumps as “toestubbers,” to remind people of what it was like to travel at night in the forest.
 
Near where the wall begins the Nations have sent young stonecrafting emissaries to place sacred protection on both sides — rocks with eyes that look out to each person entering the path. 
 
At the guidance of a holy man from the Nations whose name we forget he built the prayer circle seven times before leaving it as it is now. Each time he thought he had it right, but the emissaries from the Nations came and measured it with their special sticks and said he had to do it again. He did that until after the seventh time, when they said it was right. “What was wrong before?” he asked. 
 
“Nothing,” they said. Each time was for a generation, first his great-great grandmother, then his great grandmother, his grandmother, his mother, him, his children, and his grandchildren. 
 
The inner wall is built with three steps. The ground is birth, the first step is life, the second is death, the third is rebirth. 
 
For the past 30 years, Tom has been building the wall, a little longer, a little wider, each stone, one stone at a time. He has been visited by people from many countries and many faiths. He works still. He says the wall does not belong to him, it belongs to everyone. It is wichahpi, "like the stars."
 

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