Te Awa-i-taia was born probably in the late eighteenth century. His mother was Parehina, and his father was Te Kata. Most sources state that Te Awa-i-taia had nine wives, including Rangihikitanga, Hinu, Kararaina, Pirihira and Raimipaha.
Te Awa-i-taia was a leader of Ngāti Māhanga, whose home was on the Waipā River. As a young man he led a war party that drove Ngāti Koata south from Whāingaroa (Raglan Harbour) to Kāwhia. He then occupied their land, and set up his home at Ōhiapopako, between Te Mata and Ōkete. He was a good friend and fighting companion to two of the most famous warriors in Waikato, Te Waharoa of Ngāti Hauā, and Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Ngāti Mahuta, to whom he was related.
In a period of constant skirmishing in Waikato, Te Awa-i-taia was famed for his skill with his taiaha (now in Raglan Museum). In the Waikato campaign against Te Rauparaha, at Kāwhia about 1820, he led part of the seaborne invasion. In the battle at Te Kakara in the same campaign, he was involved in the killing of Raparapa, of Ngāti Tama, who was famed for his great strength.
Te Awa-i-taia was a leader of the war party that pursued Te Rauparaha on his migration south through Taranaki. In late 1821 or early 1822 he took part in the battle at Motunui, in northern Taranaki, where Waikato were beaten and retreated north. He returned to Taranaki in 1824 with Te Waharoa, Te Waharoa's son Tarapīpipi, and a large party, at the request of Ngātata-i-te-rangi of Te Āti Awa, to fight against Ngāti Ruanui at Waitara. In 1831 Te Awa-i-taia was again in Taranaki with Te Wherowhero, to exact revenge for the defeat at Motunui. He killed Te Ao-i-te-rangi of Ngāti Tama and took a leading part in the battle of Pukerangiora.
In 1833 or 1834 Te Awa-i-taia was introduced to Christianity. As a result of his conversion he tried to stop the fighting between Waikato and Ngāti Ruanui at Te Ruaki, near Hāwera, about this time. On his return to Whāingaroa he came under the influence of the Wesleyan missionary William White, who was setting up mission stations along the coast. Te Awa-i-taia became patron of the Kāwhia station, which was built on Ngāti Māhanga land, and was baptised there as Wiremu Nēra (William Naylor) by the resident Wesleyan missionary, James Wallis, on 17 January 1836. The success of Christianity among Ngāti Māhanga around Whāingaroa is attributed to Te Awa-i-taia's encouragement.
Te Awa-i-taia was a conscientious convert. He defended the mission against a threat from other local Māori, built the first church at Whāingaroa, and on church instructions discarded eight of his nine wives. In 1837 he helped to obtain the release of slaves brought back to Waikato from the Taranaki raids. In 1840 he tried to interpose himself in a fight between Ngāti Tūwharetoa and the people of Waitōtara at Pātoka pā. He urged peace, but as he knelt to pray, Ngāti Tūwharetoa shot two of the assembled warriors.
Te Awa-i-taia signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 11 April 1840, when it was brought to Whāingaroa by the CMS missionary Robert Maunsell, and he exhorted others to do likewise. In May 1844, at a meeting of Māori leaders at Remuera in Auckland, he reiterated his allegiance to the governor and the Queen. However, he expressed some displeasure at pressure from settlers to sell land, and at their unwillingness to pay a fair price.
In 1854 Te Awa-i-taia and the Reverend John Whiteley of Kāwhia accompanied Donald McLean, the chief land purchase commissioner, to Taranaki, where war was brewing over the murder of Rāwiri Waiaua by Te Waitere Kātātore. Te Awa-i-taia warned that Ngāti Māhanga and other Waikato tribes would intervene on the side of the Europeans in Taranaki if any harm should come to them. Pākehā observers regarded Te Awa-i-taia as the most influential leader in Waikato besides Te Wherowhero. He was asked if he would accept nomination for the Māori kingship, but would have nothing to do with the movement, considering support of it to be incompatible with his sworn allegiance to Queen Victoria. At the 1857 meeting at Paetai, near Rangiriri, he spoke against the movement. Such was his mana that his speech was followed by half an hour's silence. When Iwikau Te Heuheu Tūkino III advocated the forcible expulsion of Pākehā from New Zealand, Te Awa-i-taia and Waata Kūkūtai interrupted him and persuaded him to sit down. Te Awa-i-taia also urged Te Wherowhero not to accept the offer of the kingship. He might have had more influence on the outcome of the meeting had it not been for his involvement in a dispute with Te Wherowhero over land on the coast. Te Awa-i-taia was one of the chiefs who subsequently visited Governor Thomas Gore Browne in Auckland. The supporters of the King and his opponents both insisted on the maintenance of Māori nationality, and asked that Māori be given a parliament of their own.
Te Awa-i-taia opposed Te Wherowhero's desire to settle at Ngāruawāhia, claiming that the land was Ngāti Māhanga's ancient domain. He was a member of the Ngāti Māhanga government rūnanga and supported F. D. Fenton's appointment as resident magistrate in Waikato. He considered himself and Fenton to be partners in the maintenance of law and order, and complained to the government when one of his people was captured, tried and sent to gaol in Auckland, without consultation with him.
At a meeting at Ngāruawāhia in May 1860 Te Awa-i-taia's government allegiance aroused much enmity. An attempt was made to insult him; he was urged not to speak, and to return home. Others urged him to stay, and promised to give him a fair hearing. He repeated the sentiments he had expressed at Paetai, and warned Tarapīpipi (now known as Wiremu Tāmihana) and Ngāti Hauā not to get involved in designs that would disturb the peace of the country. In August he attended the Kohimarama conference of Māori leaders, called by the government.
Te Awa-i-taia had been selling land to the Crown for several years. In March 1851 he had sold 30 square miles of land at Whāingaroa, on which Raglan township now stands. In 1859 he offered to sell land from Waitetuna to the Waipā River, on the Waikato side of the ranges. In 1862 he and his people began building a road on their own land, from Raglan through to Whatawhata on the Waipā River, to give the government greater access to central Waikato. Waikato tribes, not surprisingly, objected strongly. Months of meetings were held with other tribes who had claims to the land on which the road was being built. When a date was finally fixed to begin cutting down trees on the eastern side of the ranges, an armed party set off from Kihikihi to stop Te Awa-i-taia's men. At Whatawhata the party was stopped by a letter from Tāmihana, which stated that he would consider a shot fired against his father's ally a declaration of war on Ngāti Hauā. However, Te Paea, Te Wherowhero's close kin, personally pulled out the survey pegs for the road, and Te Awa-i-taia found that he could get no guarantee of armed support from the government. He settled for a compromise, and his people began construction of the road on Crown land at Whāingaroa.
Although Te Awa-i-taia told Governor George Grey in 1863 that he objected to government policy on Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke's stand over land sales at Waitara, he supported the government's entrance into the war in Taranaki. He acted as a government intermediary during the war which followed the invasion of Waikato by British troops in 1863. He was appointed an assessor under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858, and after the British occupation of Ngāruawāhia in December 1863 he went to Maungatautari, Pikopiko and Pāterangi to try to convince Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto to give up fighting. He believed that Waikato wanted to end the fighting, but were afraid to give up their arms lest Tāmihana and Tāwhiao, who had succeeded Te Wherowhero as King, be executed.
Te Awa-i-taia armed some of his men to assist government troops to defend the Raglan settlement during the war, although Raglan was never directly threatened. He provided guides and auxiliaries for Lieutenant General Duncan Cameron, and offered to send men to defend Auckland. He was awarded the rank of major, and was presented with a sword of honour, although he did no fighting. He died at Raglan on 27 April 1866. He was survived by two of his wives, Rangihikitanga and Hinu. Te Awa-i-taia had at least six children, three of whom survived him. He was succeeded as leader of Ngāti Māhanga by his nephew, Hetaraka Nero.