As seen in Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Sprague Park, Kingstown Road (Route 1A) and Strathmore Street, Narragansett
(401) 789-1044 (Town of Narragansett)

If you've ever seen the huge Indian head that stands at the corner of Route 1A and Strathmore Street in Narragansett, you may have wondered where it came from, and what it was for.

(Even if you haven't, sit down and shut up. We've got a story to tell here.)

What if we told you that the statue in Narragansett was only one of seventy-four erected in Canada and every state of the Union? What if we told you they were all the work, completed over the span of thirty-six years, of a single dedicated man?

Interested yet?

Peter Wolf Toth realized his life's mission at the age of twenty-four. In February 1972 he completed his first monumental sculpture, a stone Indian head, carved from the cliff at Wind and Sea Beach in La Jolla, California. By the summer he had switched from stone to wood. After finishing his second monumental sculpture, this time carved from a dead elm stump in Sand Run Park in Akron, Ohio, he made a dramatic decision:

I will make one sculpture of an Indian in each of the fifty states to honor them!

One of eleven children, Toth (rhymes with "oath") was born into poor circumstances in the newly formed Republic of Hungary in December 1947. His early years were marked by injustice and violence. During the 1956 uprising, the Hungarian borders were open, briefly (before the Soviet tanks rolled in), and the Toth family took the opportunity to flee. After two years of being shuttled from refugee camp to refugee camp, Toth and his family eventually emigrated to the United States, and settled in Akron, Ohio.

As Toth grew up in his new country, he developed a deep interest in native North American culture and history. He saw in their story a parallel to the violent repression he had experienced in Hungary. But he didn't really become passionate about this empathy until his epiphany in Sand Run Park.

Although he studied art briefly at the University of Akron, and learned a lot from watching his father (also an artist), Toth considers himself to be self-taught. Prior to carving his stone Indian head in La Jolla, he had never done anything even remotely similar.

Traveling the United States in his "Ghost Ship" (a modified Dodge maxi-van), he spent summers in the north and winters in the south, stopping wherever local officials would allow or invite him to carve one of his "Whispering Giants." He accepted no money for his labors—he considered the monumental sculptures to be a gift to his adopted country—but subsisted on whatever he could earn from odd jobs and the sale of small carved objects. Sometimes city governments, parks departments, chambers of commerce, and private individuals would assist by covering his living expenses or by providing needed materials and services.

By the time he rolled into Rhode Island in June 1982, he had a wife, Kathy, the Ghost Ship had been replaced by a Winnebago, and he had an additional source of income—a self-penned book, published in 1980, entitled Indian Giver, that chronicled his mission and adventures on the road. He had appeared on NBC's Real People four times and several times in Ripley's Believe It or Not! He also had forty-one silent sentinels under his belt. Rhode Island's would be his forty-second.

Toth was initially invited to Rhode Island by Charlestown's Ninigret Park subcommittee. They thought that the former Naval Air Station, which they were working to develop into a historic park, would be a great place to display one of Toth's heads. But Toth didn't agree. He felt the park was still too undeveloped and too isolated. He wanted a spot where his statue, and his message, would get more exposure.

While he waited for a suitable site to present itself, he began work on the sculpture at Thompson's Sawmill in Hopkinton. The massive Douglas fir, which reportedly broke away from a log jam on the West Coast, was donated by sawmill owner Jim Thompson. (In a phone conversation we had with Mr. Toth, he had a hazy recollection that the log had been involved in "maneuvers" by the Navy. Hmm.)

A series of articles in the Narragansett Times followed Toth's progress as he exposed the Indian in the log. Writer Emily Estes described the scene this way in the July 1, 1982, issue:

CHINK, CHINK. The wood chips flew and the dark eyes never blinked behind dark sunglasses. Thick black bangs crept out from under a blue bandana wrapped around his head. A beaded Indian pendant on a thick black cord swung softly at his neck every time he raised the mallet. Kicking his pointed cowboy boots up over the log, he straddled the neck of the horizontally-inclined face. In front of him spread the deep neckline, a noble chin, a flat nose and deep sunk eyes. At the very top, portions of a small headdress are recognizable.

Toth is insistent that his statues are not totem poles, nor are they meant to copy any other kind of Native American art. "This is my concept of the Indians of this area. I study the Indians of the area, then visualize an Indian within the log. It is a composite of all the native people of the state."

For awhile it seemed as though no town in South County, other than Charlestown, wanted the sculpture. Toth actually considered offering it to "the big city" of Providence. Then South Kingstown showed an interest. Toth liked one of the sites he was shown—Hannah Robinson Tower at the intersection of Routes 1 and 138—but that spot turned out to be owned by the state. As Estes noted with weary succinctness: "State. Rhode Island. Bureaucracy. Red Tape."

Although officials at South Kingstown's recreation department were willing to take on the paperwork, it was obvious that approval from the state could not be expected to arrive in a timely manner. Exit South Kingstown.

Finally the town of Narragansett stepped up, offering sites in the Pier area and at Sprague Park. No red tape here; approval was soon given to place the monument in Sprague Park, at the entrance to Canonchet Farm (South County Museum). Although the statue was given for free, Narragansett promised $900 to erect the carving and coat it with preservative. Charlestown felt they had been snubbed, and some members of the Narragansett Tribe protested that they had not been consulted.

Sometime around the second week in July, the twenty-three-foot sculpture was transported from Hopkinton to Narragansett so that Toth could complete his work on site. The artist often found himself performing for crowds of people who stopped to watch him patiently chip away at the wood. Proving that not all Narragansetts were cheesed off at Toth, two Indian stonemasons, Craig "Little Fox" Champlin and Ellison "Sonny" Brown, (son of Ellison Myers "Tarzan" Brown, two-time winner of the Boston Marathon and a participant in the 1936 Olympics), donated their time and skills to construct a solid base of beachstone and fieldstone.

Once Toth finished removing all the wood that was not an Indian, he smoothed, sanded, and sealed the log, to protect it from the weather. The finished sculpture is of an older man, his face lined with the care of years. He looks weary, but strong. His shoulder-length hair is parted in the middle and tied in a pony tail on the left, while it hangs free on the right. Around his neck, and draped over his upper chest, are several ropes of beads. There is a chunky headdress, or "roach," on the crown of his head.

A roach is a ceremonial skullcap woven by hand from deer tail fur and porcupine guard hairs, and attached to a base of rope for stiffness. They are made in a variety of shapes and sizes, sometimes sitting on top of the head, sometimes trailing down the neck and back, and are worn by male members of many tribes as they dance at powwows. The visual effect is that of a tall Mohawk hairstyle that bobs and sways gracefully during dancing. There are Narragansett artisans who still create these ornaments today, selling some intricate pieces for hundreds of dollars.

Inexplicably, The Narragansett Times apparently didn't cover the actual dedication of the statue on August 12, so most of the facts we know about it are what was included in a photo caption in the third edition of Toth's book. Many Narragansett Indians were present at the dedication, including Princess Red Wing (then eighty-seven years of age), and Ferris Dove, also known as Roaring Bull, the last traditional war chief of the Narragansett Tribe. Toth himself, when asked, wasn't able to supply any further information. Not surprising when you consider that it happened over twenty years ago and was just one of over sixty such dedications that he attended. However, he did diplomatically offer that he had a "wonderful time" during his stay in Rhode Island.

We imagine that Toth probably gave a short speech, standing before the enormous figure he had created, in which he repeated the themes he wrote about in his book. "America gave me a home. This is my small gift to America. My monuments are made to remind people of the contributions of the Indians of this country [and] to honor the plight of the native peoples of North America. They were the kings of this land."

Wendi-Starr Brown, Narragansett tribal historian, told us about attending the ceremony with some friends when she was twelve. Her first thought upon seeing the sculpture was that she was glad it didn't have the Plains Indian-style headdress that nearly everybody thinks of when they picture what a Native American looks like. She told us she feels that Toth's depiction of a Narragansett Indian is pretty generic. While the sculpture's look—facial features, hairstyle, jewelry, and headdress—are not incompatible with Narragansett culture and traditions, neither are they particularly specific to them. However, Brown acknowledged that the addition of the stonework base, crafted by Narragansett tribe members, sets this statue apart from Toth's other creations.

Ferris Dove's daughter, Paulla Dove Jennings, was curator of the Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum in Exeter when we spoke to her in 2005. Her feelings about the statue were somewhat different from Brown's. She remembered when Toth first came to Rhode Island and her father introduced him at tribal council, where he explained his mission. He met and spoke with many Narragansetts, gaining a sense of the culture which he would use in crafting his sculpture. Jennings didn't recall anything in particular about the dedication, but she told us that she felt good about the statue. For her, it embodies the good will and effort of its creator, as well as the message he was trying to get across.

Toth named the sculpture "Enishkeetompauog Narragansett." The first word, according to Brown, translates roughly as "all human beings." "Narragansett" means "at the small, narrow point," or "the people of the small, narrow point." So the full title means, essentially, "the people of the small, narrow point—a part of all humanity." This echoes another of Toth's themes, that the statues represent all humanity and stand against injustice to all people.

Toth completed his goal of a statue in each of the fifty states in May 1988 with a statue (#58) of a Polynesian in Haleiwa, Hawaii. (Some states have more than one of his sculptures, and Canada has two). In recent years Toth has divided his time between carving new or replacement statues, repairing existing ones, and making smaller pieces of art in his Florida studio. You can look up some of his other Whispering Giants in the Smithsonian's Art Inventories Catalog, if you're interested, but for now David Schumacher's photo catalog of visited statues is the best resource out there. A list of statues (without photos) on Wikipedia is based on Schumaker's site.

Toth's sculptures have even become something of a hobby for some people. In the pastime of GeoCaching, a global positioning satellite device is used to help locate objects, places, and "caches" (hidden containers filled with objects to trade), around the world. Many of the Whispering Giants have been pinpointed by GeoCachers and are awaiting your visit.

What's next for Peter Wolf Toth? When we spoke to him in February 2005 he was looking forward to the production, in collaboration with writer Carolyn Berry, of a coffee table book about his Whispering Giants. As of 2015 it appears that project is on hold. He also was hoping to sculpt a statue of King Laszlo (an eleventh-century warrior who defended Hungary against "heathen" invaders), to be placed in his native country. Instead, he ended up sculpting Hungary's first King, Stephen I, completed in June 2008. As of 2009 he hoped to carve at least eight more statues dedicated to indigenous people around the world.

"With proper care my statues should be around for a long time," he told us. "Years... maybe decades after I'm gone." They're an impressive legacy.

Plaque Inscription

ENISHKEETOMPAUOG NARRAGANSETT
CREATED BY
SCULPTOR PETER TOTH
STONEWORK BY THE NARRAGANSETT INDIANS
DEDICATED AUGUST 12, 1982
PLAQUE DONATED BY
NARRAGANSETT LIONS CLUB

Information

Cost: free

Time required: anything more than five minutes is pure masochism

Hours: dawn to dusk

Finding it: from Route 95 take exit 9 to Route 4 South. After about 10 miles Route 4 becomes Route 1. Go another 7.5 miles and take the Route 108 ramp toward Point Judith and Scarborough Beach. Turn left at the bottom of the ramp, enter the rotary, and exit onto Kingstown Road (Route 108). Go about 0.8 miles and look for the monument on the left at the corner of Kingstown Road and Strathmore Street.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to swamps or flag-burning barbarians. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited June 7, 2015

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