For decades, a 20 ft. wood-carved sculpture of a Native American has called the Ocean City Inlet, right on the boards overlooking the Atlantic ocean, his home. He wears a headband with a single feather poking from the top and has withstood over 40 years of summer heat, winter frostbite and year-round storms. By now, his presence in Ocean City is almost as certain as the ocean itself. But why is he here?
To fully understand the history of the Inlet totem pole, you have to start with some background on its artist: sculptor Peter Toth.
About the artist
Peter Wolf Toth was born in Hungary, but fled with his family to the United States as a child in 1956 when the Soviets took over his homeland, according to Toth’s website. His family settled in Akron, Ohio and Toth briefly studied art at the University of Akron, although he largely considers himself self-taught.
As an immigrant growing up in the U.S., Toth soon developed a major interest in North American culture, particularly in the plight of the Native Americans. It’s said that Toth realized his life’s purpose at the age of 24, in 1972 when he carved a stone Native American head from a cliff in La Jolla, California. Afterwards, he switched mediums from stone to wood and carved another head from a dead elm stump at a park in Akron. That’s when he decided he would carve a wooden sculpture or totem pole to honor Native Americans and give one to each of the 50 U.S. states.
About the Trail of the Whispering Giants
The series of sculptures is called the Trail of the Whispering Giants. In the 70s and 80s, Toth would travel to the northern states in the summer and southern states in the winter in his Dodge maxi-van and stay with whatever locals would have him as he worked on his carvings. He took no money for the sculptures, but considered them to be gifts to the country that welcomed his family back in the 1950s. He provided for himself with odd jobs, the sale of his smaller hand-carved trinkets and the occasional town or individual that would offer to cover his living expenses while he carved.
In May 1988, the series was completed when Toth finished sculpture #58 in Haleiwa, Hawaii (some states have more than one sculpture, and there are also now several in Canada). Today, Toth lives in Florida but still works replacing or repairing existing sculptures and continuing to carve small ones out of his studio.
About the “Inlet Indian” (AKA “Nanticoke”)
While it’s often referred to as the “Inlet Indian” or just as the Native American statue at the Inlet, Maryland’s sculpture in Ocean City is called Nanticoke. It was the 21st made in the series, stands 20 ft. high and was created in 1976.
The sculpture depicts a member of the Assateague tribe, a former tribe of the Nanticoke people. While the Assateague tribe no longer exists, the Nanticoke people today are a federal- and state-recognized tribe of Delaware.
Toth carved the sculpture from 100-year-old oak. In 2006, he returned to Ocean City to restore Nanticoke, as the sculpture had weathered decades of storms and heat. Since Hurricane Sandy (and a litany of other storms that have passed through since ’06), the sculpture has undergone more damage, although the Town has yet to address its current need for further restoration.
Just a drive down the Delmarva peninsula away is another Whispering Giant, a 25 ft. poplar-carved sculpture in Bethany Beach, DE, located in the median of Garfield Pkwy and Delaware Ave. That’s statue #69, which replaced another statue of Toth’s that was in decay. The Bethany sculpture is named Chief Little Owl, which in 2002 was dedicated to Chief Little Owl of the Nanticoke tribe.