Huria Matenga was born at Whakapuaka (near Nelson) probably some time between 1840 and 1842. She was named Ngarongoa Katene at birth, but was also known as Nga Hota and, in later life, as Huria Matenga. Of Te Ati Awa, Ngati Tama and Ngati Toa descent, she was able to trace her genealogy back to an ancestor in the Tokomaru canoe. Her paternal grandfather was Ngati Tama leader Te Puoho-o-te-rangi, a renowned warrior. In contrast, her parents, Wikitoria Te Amohau of Ngati Te Whiti and Wiremu Katene Te Puoho were followers of the pacifist teachings of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai III and Tohu Kakahi. They were the leaders of the settled community at Whakapuaka.
In 1858 Huria made an arranged marriage to Hemi Matenga Wai-punahau. There were to be no children of the marriage, but they had one adopted daughter named Mamae. Hemi Matenga was the son of Metapere Wai-punahau of Kapiti, and George Stubbs, a whaler and trader, and was a substantial landowner in the Waikanae area. The standing of both families was reflected in the large party of Maori and Pakeha dignitaries who attended the wedding ceremony in Christ Church, Nelson, on 7 or 8 September.
Huria Matenga gained national prominence in 1863 for the part she played in a sea rescue. On the night of 3–4 September the brig Delaware, on its way from Nelson to Napier, ran into a storm and was thrown onto the rocks at the foot of the cliffs at Whakapuaka. Huria Matenga, her husband and three other men saw the difficulties of the crew and came to help. Accounts of Huria Matenga's part in the rescue conflict, but it seems probable that she was one of those who swam into the surf to pick up a lead line thrown by the captain. A hawser was fastened to a boulder on shore, but by this time the storm had become so fierce, and the ship was rolling so badly, that the line continually slumped into the water. Huria Matenga and two of her companions swam out into the surf and helped the crew ashore. All but one were saved.
Although shipwrecks were not uncommon at the time and were usually reported in detail in the press, the romance and heroism of Huria Matenga's part in the rescue caught the popular imagination. She was praised for her bravery and her beauty. At a time of armed conflict in Waikato and Taranaki, the action of Huria Matenga and her companions was welcomed as an expression of common humanity between the two races. Public acknowledgement was made by a government award of £50, and the people of Nelson presented her with a gold watch paid for by public subscription. At a ceremony in the Nelson town hall, on 14 November, she was compared to Grace Darling, who had rescued four people from a shipwreck off the Farne Islands in 1838. Three portraits of Huria Matenga were painted by Gottfried Lindauer and she sat for a number of photographers, including William and James Tyree of Nelson. Over a century later she was still being commemorated: in 1983 a Nelson Harbour Board tug was named after her.
While these events brought Huria Matenga to Pakeha attention, she was a notable woman in her own community and among the tribes to which she was affiliated by virtue of her rank and character. She held land in Taranaki and Porirua as well as Nelson, and travelled in these areas, taking part in family decisions, naming children and arranging marriages. After the death of her father in April 1880 she inherited rights to 17,739 acres of land at Whakapuaka. Wiremu Katene had repudiated the 1853 Ngati Toa cession of lands in the South Island, refusing to accept any part of the £5,000 payment. Huria Matenga shared his views and was later described as being 'very jealous of her rights, especially in all matters pertaining to land'.
Her reluctance to part with her land, combined with her energy and the business acumen of her husband, enabled her to live the later part of her life in style and comfort. The land was stocked with sheep and leased to Pakeha farmers. Her prosperity at a time when the Maori economy had largely been destroyed set her apart from many other Maori. Local histories record that the Matengas were able to maintain a spacious homestead with expansive lawns and a tennis court. Huria Matenga organised lavish entertainments in both Maori and Pakeha style. The prophets Te Whiti and Tohu visited Whakapuaka in 1882 during their period of exile. Other visitors included Bishop A. B. Suter and Alexander Mackay, native reserves commissioner and later Native Land Court judge, a long-standing friend of the family. She was often invited as the local celebrity to functions in the area.
For the last 20 years of her life Huria Matenga was involved in a complex dispute over the ownership of Whakapuaka. She had inherited the mana over the land, but other family members retained their rights of occupation and use, and their right to take part in decisions over its future. In 1883, however, the Native Land Court granted title to Huria Matenga alone. Between 1896 and 1934, 15 petitions objecting to this decision were presented to Parliament.
The most significant group of petitioners were other family members who claimed that, under Hemi Matenga's influence, Huria Matenga had broken a promise to include their names on the title. Evidence was produced to show that he had forced them off the land. This dispute was the cause of considerable unhappiness for Huria Matenga at the end of her life. Debate and litigation continued long after her death; the issue was not finally settled until 1936, when one quarter of the 11,381 acres remaining in the estate was awarded to other family members. On Huria Matenga's death Hemi Matenga was left the sole owner of her properties. Whakapuaka remained in Maori ownership until 1954.
Huria Matenga died on 24 April 1909, at Whakapuaka, and was buried there on 2 May. Over 2,000 people attended her tangi. Her status and achievements have made her a valued and respected ancestor for her whanau and community, and her heroic act in the rescue of the crew of the Delaware has made her one of the few Maori women of her time to have a permanent place in Pakeha history and local folklore.