It has been over 30 years since Peter Toth’s “Whispering Giant” took its place in front of the Stage Stop in Mandan. At the time, it was one of 39 such statues throughout the country. But by 1988, Toth, creating what many have labeled “The Trail of the Whispering Giants,” had gifted one of his sculptures to each of the 50 states.
When Toth first began his journey, he did not realize where it would take him. In 1971, with money saved up from his work as a machinist, Toth outfitted a van he called “The Ghost Ship” and began heading south, eventually landing in La Jolla, Calif.
On a whim, Toth began carving a giant head into a seaside cliff. He hadn’t deliberately set out to carve an Indian, but that was how it was described in a local newspaper.
“Subconsciously I may have carved an Indian,” Toth said in a 1989 interview. “I was always interested in these noble people.”
At the time, it was a mystery as to who created the sculpture, as the project had not been planned, and seemed to appear out of nowhere. When Toth returned to his carving, a crowd had gathered, and it became his mission to donate a similar sculpture to each state.
The mission was partially inspired by the similarity he saw between the plight of the Magyar people, his own family roots, and the Native Americans.
As a young boy, Toth and his family fled from Poland during the rebellion of 1956. He was only 11 years old at the time. Traveling by train and by foot, his family crossed over icy swamps to gain their way into Yugoslavia, where they had to stay in refugee camps. After two years of being moved from one camp to another, the family immigrated to the United States, settling in Akron, Ohio.
He soon developed an intense interest in both Native American history and culture. He saw their story as a reflection of the violence and repression he had experienced in his homeland.
Having learned the art of sculpting partially from watching his father, but primarily through experimenting, Toth set out to began a project like one he had never untaken before; a project to carve these sculptures.
After the success of his first one in California, combined with his interest in Native Americans, and the desire to give a gift back to his adopted country, Toth began a lifelong journey.
Coming to Mandan
After a decade of traveling through the country and creating these sculptures, Toth found himself in North Dakota.
Originally, the plan had been to erect the monument at the Heritage Center in Bismarck. However, after governmental red tape, Toth decided that Mandan was a more suitable site. He also found it favorable because the eventual site was on the road to the “On-a-Slant” Mandan Village in Fort Lincoln State Park.
The sculpture itself would be carved out of a cottonwood tree, on in which was said to have been struck by lightning.
“It is fitting the cottonwood be used, it was used by the Mandan Indians in building their own homes,” said Robert Wefald, North Dakota Attorney General at the time, during the dedication ceremony in 1981.
While the statue does not depict any particular Native American, it was created to contain characteristics of the eight tribes that had once inhabited North Dakota.
In honor of the request by Toth for his work to be on public property, the owners of the Stage Stop donated the small patch of ground to the Mandan Park District. On Nov. 24, the “Whispering Giant” was given to the people of North Dakota in a dedication ceremony.
After completing his sculpture in Mandan, Toth and his wife, Kathy, traveled north to Alaska to continue his work.
Over the next seven years, Toth would complete another 19 statues, completing his goal of creating one in each of the 50 states. In May 1989, Toth finished with a statue of a Polynesian in Haleiwa, Hawaii. It was statue number 58, as a few states had more than one statue, and Canada had received two.
Upon completing his goal, Toth began dividing his time between replacing and repairing his statues. Throughout the years, a number of his “Whispering Giants” were destroyed by the weather, or infested with termites.
In 2008, Toth completed his first European sculpture, depicting Stephen I of Hungary, which now stands tall in his home country.
He has plans on continuing with additional statues, looking towards Asia as a possibility.
“I’ve worked for people that have faced injustice and it was always my dream to utilize my God-given talent to specifically help the American Indians, who I feel have been victims of injustice,” Toth said in a 2009 interview. “By my work goes way beyond the Native Americans; it’s centrally for humanity.”