At the end of October, the original LEGOLAND amusement park in Billund, Denmark, said farewell to its most famous employee, Jan Friborg. Better known as “Chief Longears,” Friborg has proudly manned the popular Indian Camp area of Legoredo, the park’s Wild West-themed section, since 1985.
It’s no understatement that Danes nationwide, as well as countless tourists, can recall a visit to Friborg’s campfire and trading post scene. Along with a rotating cast of young, white “Indian maidens” throughout the years, Friborg has donned an extravagant costume resembling his own version of a Native American patriarch from the American West, from whenever. He’s also warmed the hearts of generations of visitors with his big, friendly smile and his “Indian language,” a critical part of the original job posting that he first came across in the local newspaper nearly 40 years ago – and it’s a skill he wields proudly, with such short guttural phrases as “How How” and “ooga booga” – not kidding, there’s video footage.
Rather than declaring the error and discharging the chief with a brief, well-modeled statement about improving cultural understandings, officials cloaked Friborg’s departure under the removal of the entire area. Sure, it’s a victory overall, but they took the easy way out. And the chief got a hero’s farewell as his noble story was being covered with awe, praise and gratitude around the region, while LEGOLAND staged a grandiose marketing campaign to celebrate him by collecting stories and memories from guests around the world.
The struggle to be rid of the sad variety of racist tropes and tendencies in our world continues like a game of Whack-a-Mole. Even this little essay represents my own need to do something more, something louder than what little good I thought I was able to do at those few meetings I had over many months with LEGOLAND officials in Billund. At these discussions, I was grateful to be joined by a small inspirational team: an American anthropologist, a journalist, a native Greenlander, a Danish librarian, and two high school teachers with several of their students from the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque via video and letter correspondence.
The students’ perspectives alone were fascinating and are worth another essay, but, unfortunately, they, too, received little attention from marketing officials at the park. The teens’ views ranged from those who were furious at the ignorance of park officials and employees, to those who just laughed it off as so idiotic as to be harmless, and even to those young people who argued to make the “Indian Camp” employees’ costumes more accurate rather than do away with them entirely. One student implored LEGOLAND to contact the Lakota community for input and participation. Regardless of actions taken or not taken, the “Indian Camp” is no more and few LEGO officials engaged in serious discussions about their park’s responsibility to combat the propagation of racist, antiquated stereotypes.
Of course, I had hoped that, in Denmark – widely considered the world’s happiest, most egalitarian country – and at the headquarters of LEGO – the world’s most benevolent toy company and arguably Denmark’s proudest invention – it would be much easier to right this wrong than it turned out to be. Silly LEGOLAND. Silly me.