My Hometown: Dannevirke

Welcome to Dannevirke signage
From My Hometown, 7:00 am on 8 January 2024

When someone finds out I'm from Dannevirke the conversation usually goes something like this.

Rando: "Oh so you're from Northland?"

Me: "No you're thinking of Dargaville."

R: "Canterbury?"

M: "That's Darfield."

R: "Oh..."

Growing up, my Dad even had a shirt he wore while barbecuing that read 'Dannevirke? Where the hell is Dannevirke?'

So where the hell is Dannevirke? If you've ever driven State Highway 2 from Wellington to Napier then you've gone through it. Maybe you stopped for a coffee, but more likely you noticed the giant Viking at the entrance of town proudly declaring 'Welcome' as you enter and 'Farvel' as you leave.

Crowds fill Dannevirke's main street during the 2022 Christmas parade.

Crowds fill Dannevirke's main street during the 2022 Christmas parade. Photo: Te Haana Paewai

Why Vikings? Well many of the first Pākehā settlers in the region came from Scandinavia and they named the new town after a Viking Age fortification now part of modern-day Germany (literally the 'Danes Work').

Those settlers came over to clear the vast forest that covered the area, which was known variously as the 40, 70 or 90 Mile Bush. In Māori, this primeval forest is known as Te Tapere Nui o Whātonga and it was a home and pantry for the people of Rangitāne for centuries. Today, outside of a few scattered pockets of rugged bush, very little of it remains.

RNZ Māori Issues reporter Pokere Paewai in front of Mt Fuiji.

RNZ's Pokere Paewai, far from home at Mt Fuji, Japan. Photo: Pokere Paewai

The area along the upper reaches of the Manawatū river, around the present day town of Dannevirke, is known as Tamaki Nui-ā-Rua. My ancestors of Ngāti Mutuahi and Ngāti Te Rangiwhakaewa hapū made their kāinga along the river or in clearings in the vast forest.

Today, Tamaki Nui-ā-Rua Dannevirke is a rural service town between the Ruahine and Puketoi ranges surrounded by dairy farms on almost every side. Its population of around 6000 people rarely fluctuates.

Like most kids growing up in rural towns, I thought it was the most boring place on earth. Our only location of interest then was the KFC (widely rumoured to be the smallest one in the southern hemisphere). But as I got older I came to realise just how lucky I am to have grown up on my own whenua.

Many Māori grow up disconnected from their whakapapa, a product of colonisation and urban drift.  So returning to your whenua can be a painful journey of reclamation. That pain is compounded by closed adoption, State uplift and land loss, all of which place a huge barrier between Māori and their roots.

No wonder many Māori never return to their turangawaewae, their ūkaipō, their true home.

In te reo, your turangawaewae is your place to stand. Places where as Māori we feel the connection to our ancestors, places that are our foundation, our home.

The Wharenui Aotea Tuatoru at Mākirikiri Marae, Dannevirke.

The Wharenui Aotea Tuatoru at Mākirikiri Marae, Dannevirke. Photo: Pokere Paewai

The marae is often at the center of our turangawaewae. I was lucky to grow up a stone's throw from my marae, Mākirikiri. I mean that literally. From my schoolyard someone with a strong arm could have hit the marae roof with a pebble.

As a kid I was often at the marae for hui, tangihanga, whānau reunions, usually playing on the marae atea, packing dishes away or supporting the speakers with waiata.

But maybe I didn't truly appreciate my wider hometown until I couldn't return. When Covid hit I was living abroad; nothing like a global pandemic and international border restrictions to really put things into perspective, I guess.

Separated from my turangawaewae, my māoritanga, by thousands of miles of ocean, all of a sudden the option to go home (which I had thought was as constant as the whenua itself) wasn't there.

These days I've made my way home, at least as far as Te Whanganui a Tara. And I count myself lucky, because I know my whenua is near, always calling me home.

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