By Michael Starr
But if you’re expecting the insular, suspicious-of-outsiders milieu chronicled in shows about the Amish, Mennonite and Gypsy communities, think again: the Hutterites dress differently, and speak with a German inflection (they’re of German descent and pray in German), but they’re friendly, polite and welcoming to strangers — and they totally embrace modern technology (including cell phones, Facebook and high-tech machinery).
“They’re a walking contradiction,” says “American Colony” executive producer Jeff Collins (whose company, Collins Avenue, produced the series). “The big distinction between them and other groups is that they’re Anabaptists — they don’t believe anyone should be baptized until they’re old enough to know what they’re committing to.
“And they don’t brainwash their community members,” he says. “The Hutterites can leave any time they want and there’s no arranged marriage. In fact, they don’t get married too young ... so it’s counter-intuitive to what you might think.”
The community, named after founder Jakob Hutter, traces its roots back to the 16th Century and is settled mostly in Montana and the Dakotas.
(The community “elders” live over the border in Canada — which is the furthest most Hutterites have ever traveled.)
But just because they embrace the modern world (or the “English,” in their parlance) doesn’t mean the Hutterites dismiss their heritage. It’s just the opposite; they expect community members to hew closely to Hutterite customs and traditions — evident in the drama that develops over the series’ arc between rebellious, 19-year-old Claudia and her battles with her mother, Bertha.
Collins’ crew were able to gain access to the normally closed community through co-executive producer Trever James, who grew up alongside the King Colony (in Great Falls) and whose father hunted with the Hutterite men. “He’s known people in King Colony all his life and traded on that relationship,” Collins says. “Trever told me they drink, have fun, are friendly and aren’t cold toward the ‘English’ like the Amish and Mennonites ... that they’re totally non-judgmental.”
Collins says the fact that Nat Geo is airing the series went over big with the Hutterites, since National Geographic magazine featured a cover story on them years ago.
“It was like, ‘This is legit,’ ” he says. “These are the most fascinating, complicated people you’ll ever meet.”