Posted by Jane McCarthy on May 09, 2019
 Seth Nelson and Miriam Schmidt spawned the concept of a youth cultural exchange program between Ronan High School students and Lone Peak High School students: over several days they’d share experiences including sports, art, cooking, and “hanging out” in order to learn from each other and develop an appreciation for each others’ lives and cultures. 

Who can’t say: Yup, been there. Done that!!?

On a ski lift; in an elevator; on a plane ride; at a conference: You turn to another and benignly ask:  Where are you from? What do you do? What are your goals from this? After a few moments, the conversation ends and is likely forgotten. 

In the case of Seth Nelson and Miriam Schmidt at a Lutheran Pastors conference last spring in Chico, MT, the conversation went something like this: Seth: “I wish our youth group could ski at a large resort, that offers them more variety and in a different environment.”  

Miriam’s responded: “Our kids live in a huge ski area, but they don’t have much exposure to cultures different than their own.” Instead of soon forgotten, this dialog spawned a cultural exchange to bridge differences of lifestyle and cultures, while kindling connections and friendships between teens of various backgrounds. 

Iowa-native Seth has served for nearly five years as the Pastor of the Ronan’s Faith Lutheran Church, located on the Flathead Indian Reservation, MT. The Reservation--comprised of some 28,000 residents--includes members of the Bitterroot Salish, Upper Pend d’Oreille, and Kootenai Tribes. Seth was drawn to the region’s natural beauty including the Mission Mountains and the outdoor opportunities of fishing and boating on the nearby Flathead Lake, or skiing and hiking at the nearby Blacktail and Whitefish ski areas.

Three years ago, New York-native Miriam was named Pastor/Priest for the shared Ministry of the Episcopal and Lutheran (ELCA) Churches of All Saints in Big Sky. Two key initiatives of the parish during the next several years include: (1) seek ways to interact with the Big Sky Community and beyond (specifically youth and young adults); and (2) develop relationships that make a difference for residents of our county and state that represent different cultures and lifestyles. 

This brief conversation between Seth and Miriam spawned the concept of a youth cultural exchange between the Ronan High School students and Lone Peak High School students: over several days they’d share experiences including sports, art, cooking, and “hanging out” in order to learn from each other and develop an appreciation for each others’ lives and cultures. 

Nine Ronan students and three chaperones arrived in Big Sky late in February and settled into a local family’s residence--their “home” for the next several days. Early the next morning, they booted up to try the “Biggest Skiing in America,” sponsored by Big Sky Resort. The Resort generously provided equipment, lessons, and lift tickets for the group, and Big Sky Rotarian, Grant Hilton, toured the group around the mountain. 

Ronan and Big Sky Rotary Interact students merged for various workshops at Lone Peak High School, including: 

“Blanket Exercise:” a participatory educational experience that taught students about the human history of the North American continent. The lesson focused on the experience of Native American Tribes, aiming to build collective awareness of how the lives of Native peoples were profoundly altered as their nations were impacted by disease, displacement, Native American boarding schools, and the Indian reservation system during European settlement. Rotary Interact President Brooke described standing on blankets representing the continually-shrinking parcels of land which tribal nations inhabited: “Initially, we were really spread out; then three of us stood on a space that could barely hold one; this ‘game’ showed us how dramatically the Native Americans’ territory shrank. It was very sad and moving for all of us.“ 

Casey Ryan, an enrolled member of the Bitterroot Salish Tribe, joined the Ronan group as a chaperone and educator. He earned his Master of Science degree in Forestry at the University of Montana, now serves as the hydrologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Natural Resources Department, where he works to conserve, protect, and enhance Tribal water resources for future generations. He shared how Native Americans honor the sacred gifts of water, plants, animals, and other natural resources by “caring for them, before passing them onto our children.” While focused on water, he shared the importance of story telling and passing on lessons to future generations. He also related that when approaching resource management on a reservation with both Tribal and non-Tribal people, it’s important to identify where there’s agreement: “Most can agree on 80% of a particular problem/situation; that leaves only 20% of the issue to discuss and to develop a solution.” 

Beth Billington from Montana’s Search and Rescue Team taught the basics of emergency first-response, including how to locate beacons in snow: a skill engrained in Lone Peak students where avalanches are commonplace, but a novel lesson for some Ronan students with less personal experience in avalanche-prone terrain. 

Rotarian Grant also involved the Big Sky Arts Council to sponsor Ben Peace, a Crow/Northern Cheyenne artist, who emphasizes education via creativity. Known for his culturally relevant style using historic photographic references while touching on current events and issues such as cultural appropriation, he helped the students create a montage mural using snippets of newspaper articles from both locales. 

In less structured settings, Rotarians, students, and chaperones cooked and ate traditional/cultural favorites like Indian fry bread, and skied Lone Peak, the latter being a favorite of Ronan’s Brooklyn: “The Powder Bowl is huge and challenging, but so much fun!”

The final chapter of this exchange was a worship service at All Saints in Big Sky, in which Ronan students led the Prayers of the People. Pastor Seth’s sermon reflected on his studies in South Africa with the vestiges of apartheid. He was called “Baas”—meaning “boss” or “master” as were all whites and Afrikaners or Dutch settlers)— a racial epithet forced on them as the architects of apartheid. Seth wanted nothing to do with this term and its sinful history of segregation and oppression of native Africans, separating families, and the resultant violence. He felt conflicted over this moniker, and drew parallels with struggles on the Flathead Indian Reservation surrounding Ronan, where most residents stand on different sides of a shared history that forms different values, priorities, and customs. “This can create a tense living environment in which it’s hard to see a way forward. The good news though is that struggles of the past do not define our future. We can form relationships beyond our differences;”  doesn’t that sound familiar, Rotarians?

Various Big Sky community folks—including Rotarians, the local high school, Art Council, the Big Sky Resort—welcomed the Ronan students into their hearts, minds, and homes, which helped form relationships beyond historical differences of our communities. Rather than letting this exchange be a one-off experience, Pastors Miriam and Seth look forward to holding a counter-exchange with Big Sky students traveling to Ronan this summer to further enhance newly formed friendships and deepen understanding and appreciation of our cultural differences.

Ronan, Big Sky, and Montana Statistics



Big Sky


Median Household Income#




Median Home Value +









61% Caucasian;

5% Hispanic;

27% Native American

95% Caucasian; 

3.4% Hispanic;

0.3% Native American

89% Caucasian;

3% Hispanic;

6.3% Native American

#2017 Kaiser Family Foundation

+Zillow December 2018

*2010 Census Data

Submitted by Jane D. McCarthy, a Rotarian since 1989, primarily in Ojai, CA, where she served as President (2013-14) and now in Big Sky, MT, where she serves as Club Secretary.