Hutterites have lived in North Dakota for as long as most of their German-Russians and even migrated from some of the same areas in south Russia and Ukraine, but unless someone catches sight of Hutterites shopping in a nearby town, the only evidence of their existence might be a glimpse of a highway sign pointing down a side road to a colony.
So invisible have they been in their communal life that many people still think they are Amish, or aren’t aware of their long presence on the prairies, or their history dating back to the 16th century Reformation.
Now, the National Geographic Channel’s television series, “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites,” has made leaders of the Hutterite community unhappy with its reality-style portrayal of Hutterite life.
And best-selling Canadian author Mary-Ann Kirkby, author of “I Am Hutterite,” has been talking with the sect’s leaders about what they consider an improper interpretation of Hutterite life in the TV series.
“I Am Hutterite” caused a sensation in Canada, she said; “Nobody had told the inside story (of the Hutterites),” she said. “There’s no other culture on this continent that so many know so little about. They are ... the forgotten people.”
“They are very charming individuals and worth knowing. We enrich the culture of both Canada and the United States.”
The “we” Kirkby refers to includes herself. Her parents and their seven children were part of a Hutterite colony near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.
When Kirkby was 10, her family left the colony because of a conflict with the minister there.
Every Hutterite colony is no different from a small town, Kirkby said. If the minister and leaders treat members with respect and fairness, “then you have a happy community, but if there is favoritism and people are marginalized, there is conflict.”
Thrust into an utterly alien society left the family in shock — “It was very, very difficult,” she said.
From wearing long dresses and headscarves to an outside world where in 1969 hot pants and ringlets ruled, the children didn’t know even small things, such as how to make a sandwich, she said.
Their mother could cook for 100, but had never made small family meals. Her father had never been inside a bank or been paid for his work. He earned a living by working as a hired hand for $1.50 an hour, she said. English was not even their second language, but their third, after their Hutterite dialect and German.
“The only thing that stands out is the loneliness,” Kirkby said in a telephone interview from Canada.
Living in the colony was “a wonderful, warm hub, very structured, very normal ... a place where children were allowed to be children.”
Without being able to visit their former colony on Sunday afternoons, “we would not have survived,” she said.
Her book was released in June 2007 and has sold 75,000 copies. In November 2007, the memoir received the Best Non-fiction Award at the Saskatchewan Book Awards and also was a candidate for Best First Book. “I Am Hutterite” also won second place in the 2011 RNA Nonfiction Religion Book category.
A former journalist who lives in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Kirkby worked in Ottawa as a freelance journalist and served as a media relations consultant for the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In 2010 she was appointed to the Saskatchewan Arts Board.
She is the recipient of two Can-Pro Awards for political reporting and for hosting a children's program.
After the filming of “The Hutterites,” Kirkby said she has spoken to many Hutterites on both sides of the border.
“The majority are very upset about the way they are portrayed (in the 10-episode series),” she said, believing the version inaccurate and staged, and not representative of Hutterite colonies.
“They are very endearing and lovely people,” she said. Hutterites filmed for the series at the King Ranch Colony in Montana “had no experience with the media, were thrust into the spotlight and got more than they bargained for,” Kirkby said. The most recent episode on Tuesday focused on shunning and colony conflicts about children going to high school.
Hutterites contend that to a Hutterite, it’s obvious that many of the scenes were orchestrated, she said: “For people so innocent ... that’s where the leadership feels there was exploitation.
“They expected the National Geographic treatment, but they got the Hollywood treatment.”
Throughout history, “unkind things have been said (about Hutterites) that are simply untrue, but they never had the media savvy or interest to dispel them,” Kirkby said.
Kirkby has been asked by John Stahl, the bishop for 160 Hutterite colonies, including King Ranch Colony where the reality show took place, to represent his point of view regarding the show, which is that they have been greatly misrepresented.
A pivotal moment in the history of the Hutterite Brethren was on a dusty path in Moravia in 1528, Kirkby said.
In dire circumstances, a small band of Hutterites laid a blanket on the ground and each put all their possessions on it, including whatever was in their pockets: “(Jacob) Hutter (for whom the sect is named) was passionate about sharing property and working together for the common good,” she said.
For a long time, in fact, Hutterite clothing traditionally had no pockets, she said.
The faith has a very bloody history, persecuted for choosing adult baptism, huddling together in groups in Europe and North American, objects of scorn, she said.
But Hutterite people are very friendly and loving, she said.
“They always tried to lead quiet lives, to ‘be in the world, but not of the world,’ having little to do with the outside world, which is the reason that the culture has thrived,” Kirkby said.
When Hutterite children attend public schools, it is true that too much contact with the outside world, particularly among the young, creates great curiosity, she said.
“Too much Internet has taken the culture by storm. The computer is turning us upside-down; we are losing our young people.” It is said there are three young women of marriageable age to every young man, she said.
“Meet the Hutterites” airs at 9 p.m.Tuesdays on the National Geographic Channel.