Native American carvings

Winslow, Arizona; Oahu, Hawaii; Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Between palm trees and a patch of bare land on the north shore of Hawaii’s most populous island, Oahu, stands a giant wooden carving of the head of a Native American. The carving is the final giant head in a collection of massive sculptures created by Hungarian-born artist Peter Wolf Toth.

Toth became interested in the plight of native people while studying American history before becoming a U.S. citizen. He considered their early treatment by settlers and the federal government inhumane, so in 1972, he set out to make a statement of protest. He called it the “Trail of the Whispering Giants.” His goal was to carve and leave one of his massive sculptures in every state.

His first was in California, a face he carved into the sandstone along the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Time, water and the other elements destroyed the image, so after that effort, he switched to logs as his medium. He returned to his home in Akron, Pennsylvania, and the journey began with a wooden carving that was eventually destroyed by vandals. He later replaced it.

His path took him across the U.S., to places like Winslow, Arizona; Colquitt, Georgia; Valdez, Alaska; Las Cruces, New Mexico and a small town in New York called Dunkirk. His Arizona effort initially stood next to Winslow’s tourist information office near Interstate 40 but has since been moved to a downtown park, about a block south of the world-famous Standin’ On the Corner Park.

When Toth arrived in a new city, he asked only to be given a log, a place to install his work, a concrete base and a bronze commemorative plaque. He was never paid for any of the sculptures and lived mainly on donations. He traveled in an old Volkswagen bus he called the Ghost Ship and toured the country looking for cities and towns that would accept his art. Some heads rise more than 40 feet above the surrounding landscape; others are as small as six or seven feet tall.

Toth worked about four months on each project, then moved on to the next state. Eventually, he carved 60 heads, including several in Canadian provinces. His last in the U.S. was the one standing in Oahu, finished in 1987. Most of his sculptures still perform their intended task, acting as sentinels of the past and reminding today’s generations of what has gone before. But others weren’t so fortunate.

Termites with no regard for art ruined his works in Fort Wayne, Indiana and Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The deterioration that comes with old age destroyed sculptures once carved in Texarkana and Vancouver. The carving in St. Louis had to be removed after it was struck by lightning. The heads that once stood in Groton, Connecticut, and Aberdeen, South Dakota, are in storage while local citizens try to find funds to repair them. Others – like those originally placed in Deland, Florida; Atlantic City, New Jersey; Wilmington, North Carolina and Wheeling, West Virginia – have simply vanished.

But the others remain as a tribute to Toth’s 16-year quest to honor Native Americans. Although his journey was complete, Toth didn’t retire. After finishing his project in this country, he returned to his native Hungary, where he pursued art. Among his later works is a wooden head honoring Stephen I, the country’s patron saint. It stands in Delegyhaza, a small town about 20 miles outside of Budapest. It is his 73rd giant head sculpture.

– Former Valley newspaperman Sam Lowe now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.