Another View of “American Colony”
Written by: Mark Waldner on Friday, June 1st, 2012
On May 29th, the first of ten episodes of “American Colony: Meet the Hutterites” aired on National Geographic Channel. A film crew spent months filming the King Ranch Hutterite Colony from the Dariusleut branch of Hutterites near Lewistown, Montana.
The online video clips and the episodes are interesting and entertaining, not only for the regular audience of National Geographic, but also for many of the 49 000 Hutterites who live on colonies scattered throughout the plains in the USA and Canada. The trailers, deleted scenes and photos posted on the website show salient snapshots of life inside the King Colony, appearing to represent an authentic view of life inside this particular colony, warts and all.
Although, the film shows realistic scenes of colony life, many Hutterites especially among the Dariusleut feel offended by the series for various reasons. Many feel that King Colony is not representative of the average Darius colonies.
For example, almost no Hutterites send their students to school outside their community. Invariably students attend school on the colony where they are instructed by qualified teachers. High school, where it is made available, is either offered on the colony or via distance education. Hutterites don’t send their children to outside schools, because they are deeply concerned about the worldly influences to which their children would be exposed. The film, however, shows students attending local public schools against the wishes of the elders, and the problematic worldly influence is clearly portrayed by the younger characters in American Colony.
Another major issue relates to dating non-Hutterites as shown in some of the trailers. Although one of the trailers in American Colony portrays as normal or acceptable for community members to date outside the fold, it would be seen as scandalous if this happened in almost any other colony. Such actions are directly contrary to Hutterite faith and practice where a premium is placed on personal purity and courtship must exemplify Christian communal values. Hutterites in good standing with the church will court only other Hutterites, in most cases from other colonies, but never from off the colony.
The primary concern regarding American Colony as expressed by the larger Hutterite community is spiritual in nature, an expression which the National Geographic series appears to omit. Hutterite life is rooted in faith in God, the teachings of Christ and Anabaptist traditions. When life is examined outside the lens of faith, Hutterite communal living appears oppressive and restrictive; those who resist are viewed as heroic. This is evident in the ‘them vs. us’ attitude towards leadership by several characters. Many Dariusleut and other Hutterites feel that spirituality should have been front and centre, since our whole raison d’être ought to be to serve God and our fellow man. Of course, Hutterites are human beings with all the failings that are associated with being human. As such, many vices do come up and need to be dealt with according to Biblical and traditional values. Still, it would have been paramount in the view of Hutterites to include, prominently, the spiritual component in any documentary.
Many of the things you see in the series, such as the rough language by some members, drinking, cursing, defiance by students and others, wearing make-up, and so forth, are all issues that many colonies deal with. Most colonies take those issues seriously and encourage their young people to avoid these issues, humble themselves, and participate in the colony as part of a Christian team.
Living in Christian community does not eliminate our humanness and thankfully it appears that various members of King Ranch Colony are attempting to deal with some of these issues too, as they well should be.
We have no desire to sit in judgement of any person or the King Ranch Community, but we feel compelled to express our disappointment regarding American Colony. We acknowledge that all Hutterites are imperfect human beings and constantly strive to address some of our failings. Yet the depiction of King Ranch must not be taken to represent a typical Hutterite Colony.
Hutterite and non-Hutterite viewers will find the series to be entertaining and interesting, yet lacking in the essence of what it means to be a true Christian Hutterite. For viewers who are following this particular series, please recognize that it represents the scripted experiences of one particular colony. King Ranch Colony, while sharing many cultural traditions with other Hutterite colonies, ultimately represents only King Ranch Colony and its members as seen through the eyes of the National Geographic American Colony directors.
Thanks to Kenny Wollmann and several Dariusleut friends who offered suggestions and additions to this response.