Hōniana, as he was known in his youth, belonged to Ngāti Te Whiti and Ngāti Tāwhirikura hapū of Te Āti Awa. His descent was distinguished. His father was Rerewha-i-te-rangi, whose eldest son he was. His father was in turn the eldest son of Āniwaniwa, the son of Te Whiti-o-Rongomai I, and Tāwhirikura. His mother was Te Puku. Hōniana was born in Taranaki probably in the later eighteenth century; in 1839 Ernst Dieffenbach thought he was about 60 years old.
When Rewarewa pā, near present day New Plymouth, was attacked by Taranaki in the early nineteenth century, Rerewha-i-te-rangi and two other leading chiefs were killed. Hōniana and his father's younger brother, Rauakitua, escaped by leaping from the pā, down a cliff into the Waiwhakaiho River, and swimming to safety. In this way, it is said, he acquired the name Te Puni-kōkopu, from puni (deep pool) and kōkopu (fresh water fish). This name was usually shortened to Te Puni. Another form is Epuni, recorded in error by early Wellington settlers, and now the name of a Lower Hutt suburb.
For many years Te Puni was overshadowed by his younger cousin Te Wharepōuri, whose forceful personality and military prowess caused their people to look to him for leadership. Te Puni, older, milder and secure in his status, seems to have been happy to follow the younger chief. Te Puni was involved with Te Wharepōuri in the defence of Pukerangiora pā against the Taranaki people and some southern Te Āti Awa about 1820, and in the battle against Waikato at Motunui about 1822. He and Te Wharepōuri made contact with the whalers Jacky Love and Dicky Barrett, who had arrived about 1828, and obtained their services by permitting them to take high-ranking women as wives. Te Puni visited Sydney, New South Wales, in the whaling ship Tohorā about 1828. In 1831, with the help of Love, Barrett and their men and carronades, he and Te Wharepōuri defended Ōtaka pā, at present day New Plymouth, against Waikato.
Many Te Āti Awa, realising that further attacks by Waikato were likely, since no formal peacemaking had taken place, resolved to join those of their people who had already established themselves at Waikanae. The great overland migration of about 1832, known as Tama-te-uaua, included Rauakitua, Te Wharepōuri, Te Puni, Matangi, Ngātata-i-te-rangi and his son Wī Tako Ngātata, and the families of Love and Barrett.
Te Puni, Te Wharepōuri and Wī Tako Ngātata settled at Waikanae, while Matangi and his son Te Mānihera Te Toru and Ngātata-i-te-rangi, because of kin connections, were invited to settle at Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) by Ngāti Mutunga. The arrival of so many Te Āti Awa, together with Ngāti Tama and Ngāti Mutunga, brought about conflict between those tribes and Ngāti Raukawa. The resulting battle, Haowhenua, involved most of the resident and newly established peoples of the region. Before this upheaval Te Puni, Te Wharepōuri and Wī Tako Ngātata moved to Te Koanga-ā-umu, near Porirua, where Te Puni had cultivations. They later moved in two parties, one overland and one by canoe, to Ōkiwi, on the eastern shore of Te Whanganui-a-Tara, and then around the coast to Palliser Bay. They arrived in Wairarapa after the people of that region had lost the battle of Pēhikatea to Te Kāeaea of Ngāti Tama and other Taranaki leaders, and had retreated northwards.
Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri settled near present day Featherston, and busied themselves making canoes. They were attacked there by the Wairarapa chief Nuku-pewapewa, who captured many of their people. The survivors moved back to Te Whanganui-a-Tara, arriving on Matiu (Somes Island) just after the first contingent of Ngāti Mutunga had left on the Rodney for the Chatham Islands in November 1835. A month later Matangi, to whom Ngāti Mutunga had formally turned over their lands at Pito-one (Petone) and Waiwhetū, invited a large party of Ngāti Tāwhirikura to take up residence there while Te Puni remained on Matiu. By 1836 Te Wharepōuri had settled himself at Ngāūranga, while Matangi and Te Manihera invited Te Puni to take up his residence at Pito-one. He lived at first in a stockaded village close to what is now known as Te Puni Street in Petone.
The position of Te Āti Awa remained precarious. They did not have sufficient numbers to resist Ngāti Raukawa; their relatives of Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama were at the Chatham Islands, Ōhariu or Wairarapa. Te Rauparaha could not act as a unifying influence. His position as 'conqueror' and arbiter was insecure and sometimes unrecognised by his own people. Te Āti Awa continued to fear retaliation by the people of Wairarapa. Te Puni led one of two retaliatory raids against the remnants of the Wairarapa people in revenge for the defeat at Featherston. Te Āti Awa made excursions into the Ōrongorongo Valley and lower Wairarapa for canoe timber, birds, eels and pigs, but they were continually expecting attack.
As a result Te Puni, leading an insecure people surrounded by enemies, welcomed the establishment of the New Zealand Company settlement at Port Nicholson (Wellington). When Dicky Barrett piloted the Tory through the harbour entrance on 20 September 1839, Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri boarded it from their canoes. Barrett introduced Te Puni to Colonel William Wakefield, chief agent for the New Zealand Company, as his companion in the dangerous Taranaki wars. Te Puni, according to Wakefield, inquired eagerly about the Tory's visit, and showed great satisfaction when told that the visitors wanted to buy land and settle. Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri spent the night on board the Tory, pointed out from its decks the extent of the land they deemed themselves to have been granted by the departing Ngāti Mutunga, and also some areas to which they had no claim. They left after inviting the New Zealand Company officials to inspect the land.
Two days later a messenger arrived from Waikanae announcing that Ngāti Raukawa were once more mustering in force. In this atmosphere crucial debates were held on the same day at Ngāūranga and Pito-one to consider selling the land to the Europeans. There was considerable opposition to the sale; it was also made clear that some of the areas 'purchased' were not Te Wharepōuri's or Te Puni's to sell. In August 1840 Te Puni admitted that the land had not all been his to sell, and that he had not been able to resist all those blankets and guns. Nevertheless he was one of those signing a deed on board the Tory on 27 September 1839 which purported to sell to the New Zealand Company all the land, save for reserves to be selected, from Tūrakirae Head to Rimurapa (Sinclair Head) and inland to the mountains.
Dicky Barrett's interpreting of the negotiations had been sketchy and inadequate. Even Te Wharepōuri and Te Puni, the most enthusiastic sellers, did not realise that the settlers would soon outnumber them, or that the reserves would not necessarily include their pā and cultivations. Nevertheless during the years ahead Te Puni maintained a steady policy of support for Wakefield, whom he regarded as 'his Pākehā'. Of all the chiefs resident around Wellington Harbour, Te Puni and his people were the only ones whose reserves coincided with their cultivations and villages. Perhaps this underlay the support he gave Wakefield.
Te Puni became the firm friend of the settlers. He sent his eldest son, Te Whare, later known as Hēnare Te Puni, with the company officials to Taranaki to persuade remaining Te Āti Awa to sell their lands. By January 1840 Wakefield was living in a large storehouse built for him by Te Puni in his pā. Te Puni guarded the storehouse 'with scrupulous honesty and anxious watchfulness'. He also assisted Wakefield to keep order before the British soldiers arrived. In March 1840 Wakefield greeted three new shiploads of settlers while seated in the place of honour in Te Puni's canoe. Te Puni's people built houses for the settlers and kept them supplied with pork, fish and potatoes in exchange for European clothing and other articles. They turned out to rescue the crew and passengers of the Jewess, a small trading vessel driven onto Petone beach in a southerly gale, and later helped to get her off the beach. Even when a sailor struck his daughter, Te Puni permitted the company's constable to punish the offender.
Although Te Puni had signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 29 April 1840 at Port Nicholson, he does not seem to have thought well of the government, because they favoured chiefs he regarded as his inferiors. Also, officials doubted the validity of his land sales, which was damaging to his mana.
During Commissioner William Spain's investigations of the company's purchases in Wellington Te Puni was the only Māori witness Wakefield was prepared to bring forward. Spain eventually awarded Wellington Māori £1,500 compensation and reserved existing pā and cultivations. Most of this was paid to Wī Tako, Te Rangihaeata, Te Rauparaha, and the people of Te Aro, Pipitea and Kumutoto. Te Puni and Te Wharepōuri's heirs were offered only £30 each, which Te Puni refused to accept. He now claimed that the first deed of sale did not count because he had not understood it. He assumed that the compensation was a second purchase of the area, and he wanted a share of the new payment equal to the shares of the other chiefs. Even in his refusal Te Puni was gentle and dignified: 'I do not wish to grieve you but I will not take your money'.
In spite of his annoyance at this treatment, Te Puni remained the friend of the settlers. Te Rangihaeata's refusal to permit Ngāti Rangatahi and Ngāti Tama to give up the Hutt Valley to the settlers led on 16 May 1846 to the attack on Almon Boulcott's farm. Two weeks earlier Te Puni had warned that there would be an attack, and offered to assist Major Mathew Richmond if he was supplied with arms, an offer which was refused. But after the attack Te Puni was issued with 100 muskets, built a stockade between Fort Richmond and Boulcott's farm, and strengthened his own pā at Petone. Skirmishes took place between the followers of Te Puni and those of Te Mamaku, who had come from Whanganui to assist Ngāti Rangatahi, on 2 June 1846. Te Puni looked on himself and his followers as auxiliaries; he did not wish to initiate any attack but was ready to assist the Europeans if necessary. Major Richmond was said to have taunted Te Puni with not having driven the 'rebels' from the Hutt Valley. Hēnare Te Whare, Te Puni's son, asked why the soldiers did not drive the 'rebels' away, since it was the 'Governor's quarrel'. Hēnare then crossed the Hutt River, occupied a position lately held by Kāparatehau's Ngāti Rangatahi people, and made them retreat without battle. In July Te Puni's forces escorted the militia and armed police through the western Hutt hills to Pāuatahanui to prevent a further occupation of the Hutt by Te Rangihaeata and his allies.
Thanks to his part in the Hutt fighting, Te Puni's stock with the Wellington settlers and with Governor George Grey was very high. Like Patuone and Nene of Ngāpuhi, and Te Wherowhero of Waikato, Te Puni was seen as one of the Māori patrons of the governor, those chiefs who had joined the interests of their people to those of the Pākehā. Grey invited Te Puni to accompany him to Taranaki in 1847, hoping to use his influence to obtain more land. He was granted a pension of £50 a year and paid in cash for his services in the Hutt Valley. Alexander Currie, a Londoner with investments in the New Zealand Company, sent out a silver cup as a memento of Te Puni's loyalty. When Grey was invested with his knighthood in 1848 he chose Te Puni to be one of his esquires. In the same year Te Puni witnessed the death of William Wakefield, and was one of the pallbearers at his funeral. Te Puni, who had adopted European dress and lifestyle after the arrival of the Tory, frequently visited his European friends. He became official visitor to Wellington Hospital in 1848. The people of his village were prosperous, owning by 1850 some 70 head of stock (not counting pigs) and cultivating 25 acres of crops.
About 1850 Te Puni returned to Taranaki for a period. There, in spite of the clashes between Te Āti Awa and the Crown, he continued to support the governor. However, he opposed the purchase of the Waiwhakaiho block in 1853. Although he eventually agreed to sell his own interests, he sent his son Hēnare Te Whare to hold and occupy the block on behalf of Ngāti Tāwhirikura. He accompanied Major C. L. Nugent and the British troops who landed at New Plymouth to protect the settlers from the spate of Te Āti Awa feuds resulting from the death of Rāwiri Waiaua. He acted as a consultant to Colonel R. H. Wynyard, the officer administering the government after Grey left in 1853. In 1856 Te Puni and Wī Tako Ngātata accompanied Stephen Carkeek, the Wellington collector of customs, to the Chatham Islands to help establish customs revenue collection and to set up Archibald Watson Shand as the resident magistrate. Their function was to persuade the Chatham Islanders to accept the authority of the magistrate and to select assessors to assist him. One of Te Puni's last political acts was to protest that he and other Wellington Te Āti Awa had not been properly consulted by the chief land purchase commissioner, Donald McLean, over the purchase of the Waitara block.
Two years before his death the governor, G. F. Bowen, visited him with C. J. Abraham, the bishop of Wellington. They found him disillusioned and bitter. He died on 5 December 1870 at an advanced age, and was buried at Petone with what amounted to a state funeral. Banks and commercial houses were closed for the occasion. His pallbearers included Donald McLean, now native minister, and William Fitzherbert, superintendent of Wellington. The bishop of Wellington, Octavius Hadfield, read the funeral service. Three volleys were fired over his grave by members of the Hutt Volunteers. A monument to his memory was erected by the government in the family cemetery. With his wife Wikitōria Muritūwakaroto he had seven children and many grandchildren.