Pana-kareao was an influential leader of Te Patu hapu of Te Rarawa. At the time of his birth his father, Te Kaka, was involved in intertribal wars. Driven from Oruru, near Mangonui, Te Kaka fled towards North Cape. While making his way through heavy bush, he became entangled in supple-jack vines, but managed to extricate himself. He later found refuge at Manawa-tawhi (Three Kings Islands). In commemoration of his escape, Te Kaka called his son Pana-kareao (spurned by the supple-jack). Known to Pakeha as Noble or Nopera, Pana-kareao was sometimes called Tuwhare by his own people. He may also have had the name Ngakuku.
Pana-kareao's date of birth is unknown and his mother's name is not recorded. He was taking a leading role in the affairs of Te Patu and Te Rarawa before the 1830s, while his father was still alive. Te Patu, originally of Hokianga, had claims to territory at Kaitaia, Rangaunu, Takahue and Oruru, which they had gained in the time of Te Kaka from Te Aupouri and Ngati Kuri. Many of the conquered lived with Te Rarawa as subordinates. After Pana-kareao had gained authority, probably about 1825, Te Aupouri of Kapowairua, Spirits Bay, appealed to him to check the aggression of their own leader. Pana-kareao subsequently drove out the offending leader and his supporters. These victories gave Pana-kareao mana over at least some Te Aupouri and Ngati Kuri; other Te Aupouri were not willing to acknowledge his authority.
In November 1832 William Williams, W. G. Puckey and others of the Church Missionary Society set out on an exploratory trip with a view to expanding their operations. They met Pana-kareao at his residence at Rangaunu on 30 November. He accompanied them to visit his father Te Kaka at Kaitaia. After Pana-kareao offered to clear the Awanui River, and pointed out suitable land for the missionaries to occupy, they decided to fix the new mission at Kaitaia. Thus Pana-kareao out-manoeuvred Papahia and other Te Rarawa leaders at Whangape and Waro.
Before plans for the new mission could take effect, the Bay of Islands leader Titore Takiri, who was related to Pana-kareao, visited Rangaunu. He persuaded a large party of Te Rarawa and Te Aupouri under Papahia and other chiefs to join a war expedition to Tauranga to avenge the death of Hengi of Ngati Rehia, his sons, and the tohunga Te Haramiti, in 1830 and 1831. Although the missionaries expected that Pana-kareao would go, he refused. Instead he sent a message to the missionaries that he was anxiously awaiting their arrival. By mid 1833 the prices for clearing the river of logs to improve its navigability, building a road to the proposed building site, and erecting three raupo houses were fixed. The cost of the land itself was set. It was clear that Pana-kareao's enthusiastic welcome to the missionaries was, at least initially, mercenary. However, he was motivated by the welfare of his people. The following year, when he received payment for the land in the form of trade goods, he turned it all over to his followers, who were quick to divide it up.
Pana-kareao soon became a genuine convert to Christianity. He was baptised with his wife, Ereanora (Eleanor), on 20 November 1836 at Kaitaia. In 1837 he sent a messenger to the Bay of Islands with a gold piece to procure for him a copy of the recently printed Maori New Testament. With this he travelled from village to village in the north, often staying away from home a week at a time. Puckey gave him credit for converting many northern groups to Christianity. Pana-kareao became very attached to his missionaries; when there was talk of relocating Puckey and Joseph Mathews, he wrote to the CMS in England begging them to reconsider. He was enthusiastic about many aspects of European culture; he and his wife adopted European dress, housing and furniture. Ereanora, a woman of very high rank, baked her own bread and cooked and served food in a European style.
Pana-kareao's enthusiasm for all things European influenced his relationship with officialdom. He supported James Busby as British Resident and was one of the signatories of the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand. When Lieutenant Governor William Hobson arrived in Kaitaia in April 1840, seeking ratification of the Treaty of Waitangi, Pana-kareao was welcoming, although Te Rarawa warriors startled the official party with a haka. Pana-kareao stood out with his tall, powerful build. He was attired for the occasion in a fine woven cloak, his hair dressed with huia feathers.
Pana-kareao trusted the good intentions of the European officials as they were represented to him by the missionaries. During the meeting on 28 April 1840 he spoke last. He reminded his people of his status and said he wished them to accept Hobson. He then uttered his most famous words: 'What have we to say against the governor, the shadow of the land will go to him but the substance will remain with us'. He suggested the analogy of the governor as a helmsman for the ship, New Zealand.
After he had spoken, the other chiefs hastened to follow his example by signing the treaty. Ereanora, because of her high rank, signed it in her own right. Pana-kareao and his people presented Hobson with 12 tons of potatoes, kits of kumara, 8 hogs, and some dried shark (which was sent back). His people received in exchange 1½ bales of blankets and a cask of tobacco. Pana-kareao warned Hobson and his suite during their visit that some Bay of Islands and Hokianga Maori, especially Kawiti, were conspiring to expel the governor. They had attempted to recruit Pana-kareao by approaching Ereanora while she was visiting Hokianga.
Only a year after signing the treaty Pana-kareao had become dissatisfied by the governor's performance. CMS missionary Richard Taylor summarised Pana-kareao's views: 'he thought the shadow of the land would go to the Queen and the substance remain with them but now he fears the substance of it will go to them and the shadow only be their [the Maori] portion.' Pana-kareao's dissatisfaction stemmed from quarrels he had with Te Aupouri and Nga Puhi over the sale of land to Pakeha-Maori, and the extent of his authority.
In January 1840 he had sold to Richard Taylor, for goods and money totalling £260, a stretch of 35 miles at Muriwhenua. Taylor wanted to acquire property for himself, and to re-establish Te Aupouri on the land from which Pana-kareao had driven them nearly 20 years before. About 60 Te Aupouri were re-established at Parengarenga by 1841, but relations between them and Pana-kareao were not good. Te Aupouri told Taylor that Pana-kareao had no right to sell their land. With the connivance of a Pakeha-Maori called Smith they challenged Pana-kareao by planting in his personal cultivations. In spite of this clash Taylor persisted with his plans; when he visited Kaitaia on 16 February 1841, on the occasion of Pana-kareao's official Christian ceremony of marriage to Ereanora, he arranged for Taitimu of Te Aupouri to settle on the Muriwhenua land, enjoining him to permit no one to settle who did not acknowledge Taylor's ownership.
Clashes with Te Aupouri were followed by clashes with Nga Puhi. Pana-kareao had hereditary rights over the Oruru Valley but he had permitted some landless Nga Puhi relatives to settle there under their leader, Pororua. After some years Pana-kareao's Te Rarawa relatives wished to send away Pororua and his people, but as often as they were expelled they returned. After a while they were given permission to remain. As European demand for land increased, Pororua and his followers assumed the right to sell land at Oruru and Mangonui. In their view their right derived from Nga Puhi conquests at Whangaroa. They became annoyed when Pana-kareao sold a large section to S. H. Ford, and kept the bulk of the purchase price. Pana-kareao made his claim known to Hobson, and received £100 and a horse, but then Pororua made the same claim and received the same treatment.
Although he was angry, Pana-kareao agreed to let the investigation by the land commissioner, Colonel E. L. Godfrey, proceed without interference. He was willing to compromise, but Pororua's people began killing his pigs at Oruru as a challenge. They then built a pa, so Pana-kareao's people did the same. Fighting began in 1843; Pana-kareao's side suffered more casualties. Parties of northern Maori assembled and escorted the contesting parties away from the disputed territory, as, in spite of the efforts of Henry Williams, Pana-kareao would not agree to a division of the land. In the following years Pororua continued to pursue his claims, and a final solution had not been reached by the time of Pana-kareao's death.
In the northern war of 1845–46 Pana-kareao and his followers supported the British. Governor Robert FitzRoy suspected that Hone Heke's support of Pororua at Oruru in 1843 was the main reason for Pana-kareao's eagerness to join Tamati Waka Nene and other allies of the British at Omapere in April and May 1845. At Ruapekapeka in January 1846 he fought with Nene and others in a hand-to-hand battle against a large party of Kawiti's people who sallied out from the pa. Papahia of Whangape remained neutral, as did other Te Rarawa chiefs, and Pana-kareao had raised only 14 followers.
Perhaps as a reward for his support of the governor, Pana-kareao was made an assessor in 1851, and given the duty of settling disputes among Maori. He returned to Oruru to live for a time; there he incurred the displeasure of the missionaries by taking two additional young wives. After a time he returned to Ereanora, to whom he was 'very attentive'. It is not known whether he had any children. His authority remained unchallenged to the end. He became ill early in 1856, probably with tuberculosis, and died at Oruru during the night of 12–13 April 1856. He was buried in the missionary churchyard at Kaitaia, near his wife, Ereanora, and his father, Te Kaka.