Teacher Mark Waldner and his students are shown in a Hutterite classroom on Decker Hutterite Colony.
NEAR HAMIOTA — Every time reality TV series "American Colony: Meet the Hutterites" airs, even reruns, the hits on Mark Waldner’s website — he views them on a Google Analytics line graph — spike like a high-steepled church on the flat prairie.
Students make a digital video of the Christmas story against a “green screen.” (SUBMITTED PHOTOS)
The National Geographic Channel show is a 10-part series that could be called "Redneck Hutterites." The Hutterites in a colony in Montana curse and drink and party.
Many Hutterites from other colonies — and there are about 500 colonies in North America — fear people will think all Hutterites are like that.
But the show piques the public’s curiosity. Then people get on their computers and google the word Hutterite, and up comes Waldner’s hutterite.org at the top of the page. He’s had up to 16,000 hits in one day, versus the normal of about 700 hits.
Hutterites on the Internet? Wasn’t there a case just a few years ago where an Alberta Hutterite colony went to court because using their photographs on driver’s licences is against their beliefs?
Waldner is a teacher on Decker Hutterite Colony, northwest of Brandon. He patiently explains that there are three sects of Hutterite — Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut and Lehrerleut — each with differing levels of orthodoxy. The Lehrerleut are strictest about resisting technology. The Schmiedeleut, the dominant Manitoba sect, are considered the most progressive. Waldner, 43, is a Schmiedeleut. He completed his Grade 12 education and went to Brandon University where he studied computers. He became a teacher at Decker colony, and part of his course load is teaching computer programming and digital video production.
"Hutterites have a big concern with the Internet," Waldner acknowledged. While televisions are banned in virtually every Hutterite household in North America, the Internet is harder to keep out. But it also threatens their hermetic lifestyle.
Hutterites weren’t always so isolated. Five centuries ago, there was more missionary work and outreach among Hutterites, Waldner said.
"Since 300 to 400 years ago, we’ve become more isolated and tried to keep the world out. The Internet brings the world in."
Waldner believes that history of outreach is one reason elders approved his website. He has actually run a crude website since 1996. Last April, he had it professionally designed by James Waldner of the Wingham Colony near Elm Creek. It is the premier Hutterite website in North America.
"It’s an opportunity for Hutterites to explain to people why we do the things we do," Waldner said. "The message is that Hutterite people are just like you and me, except we live communally and share most of our goods in common."
In some Hutterite schools today, students have more access to computers than in public schools. At the Wingham colony school near Elm Creek, kindergarten to Grade 3 students use iPads (one for every two students); Grades 4-8 use Macbook Pros (one per student); and Grades 9-12 each have a 24-inch iMac. "Apple tends to be pricier but I find it much more in tune to a creative environment," said principal James Waldner (no relation to Mark).
Even so, some Hutterite colonies have no Internet whatsoever and some have Internet just for teachers. About 30 colonies in Manitoba have Internet, said Mark Waldner. Colonies typically block everything on the Internet, then punch holes in the wall for certain sites. Decker has about 1,000 sites open. They are educational sites including Wikipedia, sites related to business like agriculture, and news sites like the Winnipeg Free Press, Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
The Internet is only available in school and places of business at Decker. Facebook and YouTube are also blocked in school to students, except with special permission. Neither do Decker Hutterites get Internet in their homes. (These rules change from colony to colony, ie. many people at Wingham colony now have Internet access in their homes.) "There’s always that conflict about how open we can be and how closed we can be," Waldner said.
But young people will find a way to go online, often via cellphones, he said. The reality is cellphones are surprisingly ubiquitous on Hutterite colonies. At the Decker colony, for example, everyone gets a cellphone when they obtain their driver’s licence. It’s partly a safety measure when people are outside the colony, and partly a tool for things like agriculture. Some of the cellphones don’t have data capabilities but many do. It’s not uncommon for adults to have iPods.
So while Facebook may be blocked on colony computers, kids do log on when they’re off the colony. Sometimes they borrow their father’s iPod. That is, young people will encounter the cyber world in their lives, somewhere, somehow. For that reason, said Waldner, "we need to teach the dangers of the Internet but also its use as a tool."
"I don’t think the things Hutterites are concerned about (with the Internet) are a lot different from non-Hutterites," Waldner said. "It’s a new thing and no one really knows how it’s going to turn out."
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 24, 2012