Cultural life in Manawatū and Horowhenua dates back to the oral traditions of the Rangitāne hapū (sub-tribes) and other iwi (tribes), which had settlements throughout the region. They passed on a rich lore linking their people to the land – explaining the origins of Te Āpiti (the Manawatū Gorge), or recording the arrival from Polynesia of the Kurahaupō canoe at Nukutaurua, on Māhia Peninsula. Other important accounts describe the explorations of the ancestor Whātonga, the upbringing of his grandson Rangitāne, the west coast journey of Haunui, and the beginnings of the Muaūpoko tribe.
In the late 1820s the Ngāti Raukawa tribe arrived, bringing new traditions that linked the region to Waikato. These were woven into a dense mesh of experience and memory, often painful, of newcomers and the Rangitāne and Muaūpoko tribes. Their recollections centred on the actions of Te Rauparaha, Te Whatanui, Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Te Peeti Te Aweawe and Hoani Meihana Te Rangiotū and others. All are often referred to on marae in both regions.
Songs from the north
Scandinavians were in demand at concerts because many were good singers. In 1878 sawmill owner John Kristian Richter returned to Palmerston North from a visit to Sydney, bringing with him a young bride. His compatriots – bushmen and millhands from Hokowhitu, Terrace End and Trondhjem – marched 300-strong, all singing, in procession to his house in Main Street.
During the early pioneering days, Scandinavian immigrants introduced their language, culture and religious customs. The Manawatu Times started publishing in 1875, alongside a Danish newspaper, Skandia, edited by Hjamlar Graff – the first printing was delayed while Danish type was found. But very few issues appeared. The Scandinavian influence declined as the general population increased, and assimilation became common. By the 1920s, for example, Lutheran church services were only conducted in English.
As in many other regions, the press and those involved in it played an important cultural role in the early years, when there were few schools and no universities. Local enthusiasts also fostered music, drama, painting, drawing and other pursuits. A brass band society was started in Palmerston North as early as 1884, and another in 1930. Such bands thrived in Feilding and Levin too. A Palmerston North choral society, the Liedertafel, was founded in 1907 (and renamed the Orpheus Society in 1915 because of anti-German sentiment during the First World War). An operatic society was first established in 1900, although its continuous history starts in 1913. A repertory society also flourished.