The Whispering Giants Thanksgiving Road Trip

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Roadside Whispering Giants...
Roadside Whispering Giants…

The Ancestry commercial is true—you never know what you’ll find!

I’m still figuring out the paper trail, but among other things, it’s very possible that I am a Mayflower descendant! The discovery continues to give me fresh perspectives on many things, including how to honor and celebrate one of my favorite holidays: Thanksgiving.

I really didn’t know much (and still have so much to learn) about our Native American Nations, but one of the most poignant encounters I’ve made has been through a sculptor named Peter Toth and his Whispering Giants. Chances are, there’s one near you (all photos by Natalie Zaman)…

Chief Little Owl of the Nanticoke by Peter Toth
One of the Whispering Giants: Chief Little Owl of the Nanticoke by Peter Toth.

Whispering Giants are massive, solemn sculptures. You’ll come upon them unexpectedly—or, if they’re in your neighborhood, you’re probably used to them; they’re part of the local scenery, waiting and watching. Earlier this year, I got to visit Peter at his outdoor studio and museum in Florida. It’s a labyrinth of paintings and sculpture, empty canvases and tangles of driftwood awaiting the touch of the artist’s hand. All the wizened faces are rendered in his signature roughly cut style.

He told me that he came to the United States as a refugee after Russian tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956. His family settled in Ohio, and after attending the University of Akron and working in a machine shop, he left the Midwest to see the country in The Ghost Ship, a van he kitted out for long distance travel. In 1972, he arrived in LaJolla, CA where he, “saw a haunting face,” in a cliff face overlooking the Pacific Ocean and felt compelled to carve it out. Local papers called the sculpture the “scar-faced Indian.” That summer he returned to Ohio carved a second statue in his hometown of Akron—in wood, this time. When viewers said that the sculptures spoke to them, he vowed to sculpt a Native American statue in every state.

Peter also carves amazing wizards and curious creatures, working with the shape of the driftwood.
Peter also carves amazing wizards and curious creatures, working with the shape of the driftwood.
This dragon is over ten feet tall!
This dragon is over ten feet tall!

Peter would go on to create 74 statues, some as tall as 40 feet, each bearing a Native American name. Materials for each project, usually a log of native wood, were provided by local communities, but each piece (in the United States, and also some in Canada and Europe) is his gift to that state. He believes that these, his humanitarian statues are the only important aspect of his work, and hopes that the Whispering Giants will speak to everyone who sees them and raise awareness of the ongoing struggle: Every Whispering Giant was carved to “honor the Indian” and all people who face injustice. The Eastern Band of Cherokee adopted Peter, and the sculptures themselves were officially named “The Trail of the Whispering Giants” by the Arapaho Nation.

Peter Toth at work at his outdoor studio-museum.
Peter Toth at work at his outdoor studio-museum.

Where to find the Whispering Giants?
As Thanksgiving approaches, take a walk out in nature. While you’re enjoying the beauty of autumn as it wanes you just might encounter one of the Whispering Giants. Most can still be seen though some have been lost to time and the elements. Traveler David Schumacker has seen all of the statues and has documented his visits on his website. Visit www.dcschumaker.com/statues.htm to find the statue (or its fate) for your state. The Whispering Giants have also been cataloged by the Smithsonian Institution (Visit www.si.edu and enter “Peter Toth” in the search box.).