HELENA – Leaders of a Hutterite colony are demanding an apology from the National Geographic Society and a pledge that it never again broadcast a television show they say misrepresented their way of life and damaged their reputation.
National Geographic Channel CEO David Lyle said Wednesday an apology is unwarranted because the show gave a fair and accurate depiction of colony life.
Caught in the middle are the stars of the show who say they have been told by elders to “tell the truth” but some of whom now fear possible excommunication.
“That’s what I’m scared of,” said Bertha Hofer about the possibility of being cut off from the King Ranch Colony.
King Ranch Colony minister John Hofer, Bertha’s brother-in-law, wrote a July 31 letter to National Geographic Society chairman and CEO John Fahey that “American Colony: Meet The Hutterites” was supposed to be a National Geographic Channel documentary about the German-speaking agricultural community of Protestants in central Montana.
Instead, Hofer said, the producers turned it into a reality TV show that encouraged discord within the community by pitting generations against each other. Situations and storylines were invented and the people were told what to do and say while the camera was on, he said.
The result was an inaccurate depiction that has damaged the reputation of Hutterites everywhere, he said.
“We feel we were ambushed and publicly humiliated by the producers of Meet the Hutterites, and by the National Geographic Society,” Hofer wrote in his letter to Fahey. “King Ranch Colony did not sign up for this sort of abuse.”
The extent to which the Hutterites let in the modern world and the effect of that on their cultural and traditional values is one of the themes in the 10-part series about the King Ranch Colony 10 miles west of Lewistown that aired earlier this year.
Producer Jeff Collins said he believes the negative response to the series originated with Hutterite elders in Canada. Those elders, he said, are unhappy that the Hutterites on the show chose to use the camera to talk about education, the role of women and the struggles of adapting to modern ways.
Most on the King Ranch Colony are pleased with and proud of the show, Collins said, but he believes they are now under external pressure to lodge a protest.
In June, the bishops for the three sects of about 50,000 Hutterites in 500 colonies in North America said in a joint statement that they were “deeply disappointed” in the show and that it presented a “distorted” and contrived image of their faith.
Lyle said he stands by the producer and that the show went through National Geographic’s fact-checking protocol.
“We believe in the show. We believe it’s a fair and accurate portrayal of the life in the part time that we were there,” Lyle said.
The King Ranch Colony was paid $100,000 to participate in the production, and that money has been spent, John Hofer said.
Bertha Hofer, a mother of three children who was featured in the series, said the first three episodes were accurate depictions but then producers began presenting them with storylines. “It was just like they corrupted your mind. We just fell for it,” she said.
Hofer said the elders from Canada told them they wanted the colony members to tell the truth. But Hofer said she also feared that she would be punished after the show followed her and her daughter Claudia looking at a college in Great Falls.
She said she is fighting for a full education for her children, while the elders believe in an eighth-grade education for most colony members, she said.
Colony spokeswoman Mary-Ann Kirkby said the levels of Hutterite education differ by colony and by sect. In general, she said, the elders are not against education but are concerned that young Hutterites who leave for public school may never return.
Claudia Hofer wrote in a statement that most of the scenes she was in were staged and scripted.
Another colony member, Wesley Hofer, said in another statement that an episode in which he was rushed to a hospital for what was believed to be a heart attack was staged.
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