Santa Fe County Commission candidate Justin Greene posted a photo on his Facebook page of himself wearing what he says is a Brazilian Indian headdress next to his wife, Sandra. One of Greene’s opponents in Tuesday’s primary, Orlando Romero, has called the photo disrespectful to Native Americans, but Greene defended it.

Justin Greene, a white politician running for office in a land of tribes, appears in a controversial photograph that began circulating just days before next week’s Democratic primary election.

Greene is wearing a smile, ornate face paint and a yellow-and-green Indian headdress. His outfit clashes with his beard and mustache.

No operative working in opposition research dug up the old photo to embarrass Greene, a candidate for Santa Fe County commissioner. Greene, 53, placed the photo at the top of his Facebook page for all to see.

“I don’t shrink from it. I’m not taking the photo down,” he said Wednesday.

In Greene’s view, there is nothing disrespectful about his appearing in a headdress with his face painted. He compared his appearance in the photo to other people donning Native items. “We wear beautiful arts and crafts from a variety of cultures regularly. It’s like wearing a piece of Zuni jewelry you buy under the Portal,” Greene said.

His analogy missed the mark by seven furlongs. Greene’s headdress doesn’t compare with an item of jewelry. His appearance might suggest a white guy mocking Indians, a complaint often aimed at schools and sports teams using Native American mascots.

Orlando Romero, one of Greene’s opponents in the District 1 commissioner race, pounced on that theme.

“It may not be disrespectful to him. It’s disrespectful to the tribes,” said Romero, who was among the first people to send me the image of Greene in costume.

Romero, who says he is about one-quarter Native American, called Greene a candidate who lacks understanding of the Santa Fe area and its cultures.

Another critic of Greene sent me a similar complaint. “What’s next? Him in blackface? As a Native American living in District 1, I find this extremely offensive.”

Greene was unrepentant. “I doubt anyone sending you the photo or complaints is truly offended. They just don’t want me to win the election,” Greene said.

He called his relationship with tribes and pueblos excellent. Greene mentioned his previous service on Redi-Net, a quasi-government agency whose mission is bringing reasonably priced broadband services to rural communities, including tribes and pueblos.

Greene said he also served as a board member of a development agency of Tesuque Pueblo, one of the tribal lands in the County Commission district he hopes to represent. The district also includes Nambé, Pojoaque, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso.

In his campaign, Greene has promised to stay in consultation with tribal nations to make sure their interests are protected in county government decisions.

Greene said a Native woman told him Wednesday she voted for him based on his record of community service. She regarded the photo as unimportant, Greene said, adding he would ask the woman to call me. She never did.

Greene said the context of why he wore a headdress and face paint is important in understanding that his motives were pure. He said photo was taken in approximately 2016 at a private home during an event about past lives and high hopes. Many people appeared in costume to draw attention to what they wanted to happen someday.

Greene said the headdress he wore is from the Kayapó-Gorotire tribe of the Brazilian state of Pará.

“I have a collection of South American featherwork,” he said. “In keeping with the aspirational spirit of the event, the goal was to wish the best for the health of the Amazon. I hoped somebody from the Amazon would win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Greene lived in Brazil for part of his boyhood, though New York City was his hometown.

His wife, Sandra, is Brazilian. She’s near his side in the photograph of him in the headdress.

Asked about his own ethnic background, Greene said: “I don’t see that it’s relevant.” After a pause he added, “It’s Eastern European.”

He settled in Santa Fe more than 30 years ago and is perhaps best-known as the owner of Dashing Delivery, a restaurant service. Greene figures his background in business and volunteerism is more important than a 6-year-old photo of him appearing as an Indian. The real issue is who could be the most effective county commissioner, he said, complaining The New Mexican’s editorial board passed him over and endorsed Orlando Romero, who once filed for bankruptcy.

In addition to Romero and Greene, a third man — Jon Paul Romero — is in the commissioner race. Republicans, with their thin bench, didn’t field a candidate. Conventional thinkers say the Romeros might split the vote, clearing the way for Greene to win.

If Greene should lose a close one, he’ll be left to wonder if posting the photo made good sense in this campaign of sharp elbows and sharper tongues.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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