SHANGHAI, China - For a guy who still bears the scar from getting mugged in the streets of Shanghai, Shonto Pete remains adamantly generous in his assessment of China.
"I love China," he says. "This trip gave me so many new perspectives and opened my eyes in a lot of ways."
Pete, of Spokane, is one of two Native American dancers from the Salish and Kootenai tribes who accompanied the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre on a two-week cultural exchange and performance tour in China.
Tall, muscular and broad-shouldered, with the chiseled facial features and dark ponytail that mark his Navajo/Salish and Kootenai heritage, Pete has drawn attention wherever the group traveled in China - even in places where he hasn't appeared in the earth-toned, elaborately feathered regalia of a Native American traditional dancer.
Only once was that attention ill-met. Late one night, Pete decided to take a walk near the hotel where the RMBT group was staying in Shanghai. He headed off, and ended up in an area where he realized - too late - he probably shouldn't have been.
"It was pretty dark and kind of a not-so-good looking area," said Pete. "All of a sudden there were like five guys around me. They jumped me and I got hit (in the forehead), and they took all my money and my wallet.
"I'm OK, though," Pete said. "And the money's only money."
Pete is no stranger to such close calls. In fact, he is the first to say that he's lucky to be alive today.
Just a little over a year ago, Pete was shot in the back of his head by an intoxicated off-duty police officer in Spokane. The officer's 40-caliber bullet lodged between Pete's skull and scalp, leaving him with a severe concussion. The officer later accused Pete of trying to steal his truck, and Pete was arrested; however, he was ultimately acquitted of the crime after no evidence - no hair or fingerprints or fibers from his clothing - could be found in the officer's truck. The officer now stands accused of first-degree assault.
"I know I'm lucky to be alive," said Pete. "To go from that experience to going to China, that's a pretty good turnaround in a year."
On Thursday, Pete marked an even more difficult anniversary. One year ago that day, Pete's younger sister, Sheena, was strangled to death in her bedroom by an acquaintance who forced entry into the family's home in Arlee. Sheena had been living with Pete at the time in Spokane, and had come back to Montana to welcome her boyfriend, who was returning from military service in Iraq.
"It's been a hard, hard year," said Pete, choking back tears. "She was such a good person, and she was doing the right things and getting good in her life. To have that happen, it's just so wrong."
Pete marked Thursday's anniversary by burning incense in his sister's memory at the Jade Buddha Temple, a Buddhist sanctuary in Shanghai.
"She would have loved this," Pete said of performing and traveling in China. "I've thought about her a lot here. She was a great singer, and I wish she could have been here performing with me."
Despite - or perhaps because of - those difficult experiences, Pete's visit to China (his first trip outside the United States) has been an eye-opener for him - and for those who have attended the RMBT performances.
In the group's performances in Beijing, Guilin, and Shanghai, Pete's dazzling dances alongside fellow Salish-Kootenai fancy dancer Louie Plant captivated audiences, most of whom had only the vaguest notions about Native American dance or music. After those performances, audience members stood in line for photographs with the colorfully clad dancers.
Offstage, Pete has soaked in the local color at every stop along the way.
"What about Shonto? In his own way, could you imagine a better ambassador for what this trip is about?" said Charlene Campbell, co-director of RMBT. "The guy is so engaging and passionate, and really does such a great job of representing an important culture from Montana - not just in his dancing, but in his way of connecting with people. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and people respond to that."
Indeed, Pete's ability to befriend seemingly everyone along the winding path of this whirlwind tour became something of a running joke for the RMBT delegation.
"Shonto, I think you could make friends with space aliens," asserted one RMBT dancer after Pete greeted a Polish pianist by name at the group's hotel in Beijing. "Is there anybody in Beijing you haven't met yet?"
Shonto just smiled and softly grunted a modest laugh under his breath. It was as if, to him, the idea that a visitor wouldn't get to know everyone in the hotel - bellboys and tourists and all - is more unimaginable.
"I'm a social person, you know?" he said one night, sitting in the hotel lobby with a group his new friends from RMBT. "I like to know the people where I go, the different cultures. We're all sitting here, and this is what's important: We can talk to each other and find the places where we meet, our common spirits."
Missoulian Entertainer Editor Joe Nickell accompanied the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre on its tour to China.