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Stephen J. Lee, Forum Communications, Published June 05 2012

Hutterities in region say there's little reality in new TV show 'I am Hutterite'

GRAND FORKS - A new reality TV show about life in a Hutterite colony in Montana gives outsiders a glimpse of a unique religious culture centered in the Northern Plains of North America.

But it’s also concerned many Hutterites who see it as a distorted image of who they are, says Mary-Ann Kirkby, who spent her early years in a Hutterite colony near Portage La Prairie west of Winnipeg. She also is related to many members of the Forest River colony near Fordville, N.D.

Kirkby wrote the best-selling 2010 memoir, “I am Hutterite,” about her family dropping out of the Manitoba colony over leadership struggles in 1969 when she was 10. She spent years as an award-winning reporter in Canada and lives in Prince Albert, Sask., with her husband and children and retains ties to Hutterite colonies. She spoke in April in Grand Forks.

National Geographic’s reality show, “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites,” focuses on a few families in the King Colony near Lewiston, Mont., that aren’t representative of Hutterites, she said Monday.

Kirkby was asked by Bishop John Stahl, head of 160 Dariusleut Hutterite colonies, including the one at Lewiston, to serve as point person in explaining Hutterite concerns over the 10-episode show that began airing last Tuesday.

Its second episode airs at 9 tonight on the National Geographic channel.

Dariusleuts, Schmiedeleuts and Lehrerleuts — which are the most traditional — are the three sects, or conferences, of the Hutterite movement.

“I have been fielding calls from both sides of the border,” she said Monday. “People in all three sects say they feel embarrassed and exposed.”

The first episode of the show last week showed a Hutterite girl wearing makeup and a boy attending a high school in the “outside world,” Kirkby said.

Once it was discovered, his mother was told by the group’s elders her son had to drop out or she would be shunned by the group.

Neither scenario shows normal Hutterite life and King Colony long has been considered “on the fringe” for its loose adherence to Hutterite practices, she said.

Tony Waldner, a German teacher at the Forest River Colony — and a cousin of Kirkby although they have never met — agreed.

He had watched some trailers for the show on the internet — TVs aren’t available at his colony — and saw little reality in the show.

“In our colony, I can’t imagine someone could do it and get away with it,” Waldner said Monday. “For this (Montana) colony even to let this film crew in there shows it is maybe a very liberal colony.”

One episode also shows the colony’s cook acting in a way considered very unseemly, and unreal, by Hutterite standards, Waldner said.

Hutterites practice an unusual form of radical Christianity, sharing all property and living communally in colonies centered on agriculture. They are pacifists and spent hundreds of years after the Protestant Reformation fleeing persecution across Europe from Catholics and Protestants alike.

The final few hundred of them immigrated to Dakota Territory in the 1870s, where they flourished and spread to several states. A move to Canada to avoid the U.S. draft in 1917 has left the great majority of the 45,000 Hutterites in about 500 colonies still in Western provinces, despite a filtering back to the United States from the 1930s on.

There are 10 colonies in North Dakota, including a new one being organized this year southwest of Hillsboro; and nine in Minnesota, including Spring Prairie near Hawley.

The show’s highlighting of irregular Hutterite life likely won’t help an old problem that appears to have speeded up in the age of the internet, Kirkby said: how do you keep young people in the colony when the outside world beckons?

“We are losing our young people at such an incredible rate,” she said. “There are three girls to one boy at colonies because of how many young men are leaving the colonies in the last few years.”

Some of the Hutterite concern over the reality show is that it might hasten such outmigration.

Seeing a liberal colony outside of the Hutterite norm being touted on TV might “upset the apple cart,” Kirkby said. “When others see everyone has cell phones or Facebook, they go, ‘Hey, why can’t we?’”