The River that Sings

The history, culture and legends of the Valley's Native Americans

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The history of Native Americans in the northern Alabama and southern Tennessee region is both rich and tragic.

It is estimated that around 1200-8500 BC Paleo natives crossed a land bridge formation bridging the gap between Asia to North America following herds of mammoths and bison as they traveled southward. Eventually they found themselves in the Muscle Shoals and southern Tennessee region; settling down along the Tennessee River. In order to survive, they developed efficient farming, hunting and fishing techniques as they adapted to life along the river.

The Cherokee were one of the three major nations residing in the Tennessee Valley before the Indian Removal Act.

The river was the primary source of nourishment for the tribes that formed alongside the river, including the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creek or Muscogee tribes. From the river, they gathered mussels, shellfish and other types of fish to eat. For additional nourishment they planted beans, squash and corn in the rich reddish soil native to the region. These tribes were deeply affected by the river and its resources. Language, music, art and food were only a few of the innovations of Native Americans that define the culture of the Tennessee Valley to this day.

The cultures

Cherokee culture is largely based on spirituality and symbolism. The Cherokee people consider spiritual beings to be a part of their daily lives and just as real as the physical world, such as people, animals and nature. Numbers are extremely symbolic to the Cherokee, as well as animals and shapes. The language they created is symbol-based, and extremely efficient for communication.

The Chickasaw tribe was nicknamed “the Unconquerable People” by European settlers due to their skilled battle skills and techniques. Known for their organization and precision in battle, the Chickasaw tribe was a force to be reckoned with when settlers began invading their land. Not only were their battle strategies meticulously planned, but their weaponry was quite advanced in comparison to other tribes in the area at this time. The Chickasaw Nation is now based in Oklahoma, where they were relocated by the Indian Removal Act.

At the southern tip of the Natchez Trace in Natchez, Mississippi, lies the Emerald Burial Mound. Mounds can be found all along the trace, from Tennessee to Mississippi.

The Trail

Native Americans faced many unique challenges to their survival and contentedness. Upon arriving in America, European settlers did not treat these intuitive, deeply spiritual people with the respect or dignity they deserved. Europeans falsely claimed the land as their own discovery and began to wreak havoc on the lives of these native people groups.

The Cherokee named this path “Nunna daul Isunyi” which translates to “The trail where they cried.”

Not only did European settlers bring diseases natives had never been exposed to, (and therefore had not built up an immunity towards), but they also forcibly removed them from the only home they had ever known. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was signed by President Andrew Jackson. This act called for the tribes in the area to be relocated to states west of their home; primarily Oklahoma with no government assistance for the journey. Along the way, over 3,000 native Americans died of malnutrition, disease and exposure. Because of this unjust and tragic removal, the Cherokees named this path “Nunna daul Isunyi” which translates to “The trail where they cried.” Now, this path is known as the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears snakes through North Carolina, Missouri, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky all the way to Oklahoma spanning over 2,200 miles. In Alabama, the Trail of Tears passes through Tuscumbia and Waterloo, and in Tennessee touches roughly two miles of land in Davy Crockett State Park in Lawrenceburg. The trail also runs along the Natchez Trace for much of the length of the trace. Along the trace are monument markers and designated areas to pull off the road and reflect on the hardships and injustices Native Americans faced. Each year in September motorcyclists travel the length of the trace in honor of the Native Americans who walked it so many years ago.

The Wichahpi Commemorative Stone Wall, also known as Te-Lah-Nay’s Wall, was created by her great-great-grandson, Tom Hendrix. The wall is located in Florence off the Natchez Trace.

The legend

Along the Tennessee River throughout the Muscle Shoals region came to be the now infamous myth of the river that sings. This legend claims that the river is home to a spirit who sings always; louder when the river was flowing quickly and softer when the river was peaceful. For some Native Americans this voice was said to be a guide back home.

The real life manifestation of this tale was told for a lifetime by a man named Tom Hendrix. Hendrix was a great-grandchild of a woman named Te-lah-nay from the Yuchi tribe in the region. When she was removed from her home and forced to travel to Oklahoma, she longed for the voice of the singing woman in the river she called home. She could not hear any rivers singing in Oklahoma. When adjusting to her unfamiliar surroundings in “Indian Territory” became too much for her to bear, she set out on foot unaccompanied and without a map to find her way back home to northwestern Alabama. Tel-lah-nay’s journey took five years, but she eventually made it back to her beloved singing river.

Hendrix never met his great-grandmother, yet spent over a quarter of a century building a monument to her incredible journey.

The Wiapachi stone wall spans one mile and is between four and six feet high. It is the largest unmortared wall in the United States. Stone by stone, Hendrix constructed the wall over a span of decades without any assistance. Visitors to the wall were often met by Hendrix himself and enraptured for hours by his conversation.

 I was lucky enough to meet Hendrix and view the wall for myself before he passed away in 2017, and the structure was truly sacred and inspirational. For those who wish to visit the wall today it is still open for visits daily from 8 am-4 pm at 13890 County Road 8, Florence, Alabama.

 

Native Americans are spiritual, community-minded people who were extremely misunderstood in the past. From the Trail of Tears to the river that sings to Tom Hendrix’s wall, Native Americans left a lasting mark on the culture of the Tennessee Valley. In visiting the area it is nearly impossible not to experience the reverence and spirit of the area that the Native Americans first acknowledged in their legends. In reconciling with the past, it is important that the losses Native Americans suffered never be forgotten, and that their history is rewritten to tell the truth.