According to tradition, Tuakana Aporotanga was born about 1852. His mother was Makawa, daughter of Te Aporotanga, who was a leader of Ngati Rua, a hapu of Te Whakatohea of Opotiki. His father was Charles Frederick Leggett, an Englishman who arrived to settle in Opotiki probably in the 1840s. Makawa and Leggett married in accordance with Maori custom and made their home at Te Tahatu, in the small river valley of Te Rahui dominated by the imposing pa of Makeo. Besides Tuakana the family included his elder brother, Te Riaki, and a sister who was sent to Sydney, New South Wales, to be raised by an uncle, J. W. Russell.
Throughout his life Tuakana related principally to Ngati Rua at Omarumutu. Its marae and ancestral house, Tutamure, are situated on a coastal terrace. Ngati Rua take their name from Ruatakenga, who was a grandson of Muriwai, the sister of Toroa, captain of the Mataatua canoe. While descent from Muriwai meant Tuakana was well connected within the Mataatua district, it was his lineage from Tauturangi of the Nukutere canoe that was of particular importance within Te Whakatohea.
While Leggett no doubt influenced the upbringing of his children, his time with them was tragically short. Tuakana grew up in a household which included the elders Te Huaki and Hori Kingi, who educated him and Te Riaki in the manner of the Maori. The household was in turn part of an energetic and vibrant community of 300 or 400 people. They cropped and farmed, hunted whales and traded. Tuakana became skilled in the historical traditions of his people and knowledgeable about land boundaries, place names and pa sites. He was versed in traditional medicinal knowledge, an expert on the geography of his forested ancestral lands, and was proficient in gathering food and surviving in this environment.
In January 1863 Charles Leggett, suffering from a lung disease, died at Patapata, Coromandel. Fifteen months later Tuakana's grandfather, Te Aporotanga, was killed after the battle of Te Kaokaoroa. The death of Te Aporotanga was a major catastrophe for Tuakana, Ngati Rua and Te Whakatohea. His death marked the passing of the last of the old Te Whakatohea chiefs, leaving the tribe and Ngati Rua with no men of real influence. This loss was to be of major significance when Pai Marire (Hauhau) missionaries arrived in Opotiki in February 1865. Patara Raukatauri and Kereopa Te Rau swayed Te Whakatohea to their cause, and on 2 March the local Anglican missionary, C. S. Völkner, was taken by an armed party of Hauhau and executed.
Ngati Rua were caught up in government reprisals. In early September 1865 a punitive force of about 500 men arrived in Opotiki. The scene that met them was one of well-established villages with richly carved and decorated houses, fertile valleys cultivated with crops, groves of peach trees and an abundance of livestock. In the hunt for those responsible for Völkner's death, crops and homes were destroyed and people were killed. While there was a general resistance to the military, the capture of the Hauhau pa of Te Tarata and Te Puia convinced most of Te Whakatohea that it was useless to oppose the occupation of their district, and Ngati Rua, numbering over 200, surrendered in October. Following the confiscation of their most productive lands their life and fortunes declined markedly.
After Te Kooti's escape from the Chatham Islands in July 1868, Ngati Rua were subjected to conflicting pressures either to join him or to align themselves with the government. Illustrating the ambivalence prevailing among Ngati Rua, it is said that his elders directed Tuakana to follow Te Kooti, and directed Te Riaki to join the government side. This decision meant that should either of the brothers be taken prisoner and find his life at stake the other would be in a position to intercede.
The time Tuakana spent actively fighting was short, but it nearly cost him his life. In a skirmish with the military, he was shot across the right shoulder while escaping. On 25 March 1870 Waipuna pa at Maraetahi, in the Waioeka Gorge, was overwhelmed by government forces and Ngati Rua prisoners taken by Te Kooti on 7 March were released. This virtually ended the fighting in the Opotiki district.
By the late 1880s Tuakana was a leader of the mission to establish Te Kooti's Ringatu church within Te Whakatohea, and his mana as a healer grew. He combined the function of healer with that of priest. Sick people wanting the services of the healer Tuakana gave him a penny, to which their illness was then ritually transferred. At a later time Tuakana burnt the pennies and buried them in a secret place. Those undertaking new ventures or seeking safe travel would likewise ask for his blessing.
His mana as a tohunga was illustrated by two significant events. Before the Native Land Court Tuakana put the case for his people against the claims of their traditional eastern adversary, Ngai Tai. Crucial to Ngati Rua's representations was their descent from Tauturangi, given by Tuakana. As evidence Tawhiro of Ngati Rua presented to the court the ceremonial adze Waiwharangi, once the property of Te Huki of Ngati Kahungunu. Ngati Rua had acquired it after a victorious struggle with Ngai Tai for the possession of the Waiaua district. Waiwharangi had passed to Te Awanui, the son of Te Aporotanga, and subsequently its apparent loss caused Ngati Rua great consternation. To their relief, Tuakana found Waiwharangi in the fortress of Makeo, its presence being revealed to him in a dream. When his uncle died Tuakana took care of the adze.
The second event was the part Tuakana played in the tragedy at the Motu River in 1900, when 16 children and two adults were drowned crossing the river by canoe. The anguished parents appealed to Tuakana to help find the bodies. At the scene of the tragedy he conducted his ministrations. It is said that rainbows appeared from the sea, and that where they touched land bodies were found.
As a tohunga, Tuakana would not allow hot water to come in contact with any part of the body. The body was tapu, and as hot water was generally a product of the cooking fire it was contaminated. His living arrangements strictly separated food preparation and eating from his tohunga activities. Nothing associated with daily living and in particular with the cooking environment was permitted into the two rooms that Tuakana used for healing and prayer. Any incursion infringed the law of tapu, nullifying his power to heal and that of the patient to recover. He interviewed the sick in one room, then retired alone to a second room where he prepared his plant potions and recited his karakia.
Despite the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907 Tuakana continued life as usual. His treatment of patients with cold water is said to have led to a warning from the police. In the influenza epidemic of 1918 the Tutamure meeting house was used to hospitalise the sick, and hot water, the bane of Tuakana the tohunga, gained entry. To him this was a public desecration of the sanctity of the house of prayer and healing, which he could not tolerate, and he left the marae never to return. At O-rangi-paka-kino, Tuakana built a small meeting house that held about 20 people. Made of tree-fern trunks and roofed with rushes, it had an earth floor, and from here he continued his church services. His followers included his nephews Amoamo Te Riaki, Hiki-o-rauru Te Hata and their families.
Tuakana continued to keep order in a Maori world which, although rapidly changing, was still affected by deeply held convictions about tapu. In the 1920s his grand-nephew Ngawai Amoamo accidentally disinterred human bones while preparing ground for planting. In extreme distress he turned to his elder and protector. Tuakana, protected by his karakia, gathered the bones and took them away for burial. He watched and presided over his people's church festivals, and travelled long distances with them by horse and cart, in particular to the thanksgiving festivals of 1 January and 1 July. He was known to have ridden bootless and hatless to the Ringatu marae at Kaiwaka, Tikitiki.
In his later years his wife, Te Owai, watched him carefully; he was now inadvertently infringing the law of tapu. Despite her efforts and those of his second wife, Waimatao, items like his pipe found their way into his healing rooms. Such events led to a decline in his mana as tohunga. Throughout most of his later life he was cared for by his community. His last years were spent at O-rangi-paka-kino in the care of his grand-nephew Tiwai Amoamo and his wife Urututu, daughter of Te Whanau-a-Apanui tohunga George Gage. His stay with Tiwai was marked by daily prayer and church calendar observances. The cooking of food took place in the kauta (cooking shed) located a chain from Tiwai's conventional Pakeha home. The task of carrying on his work now devolved to his nephew Amoamo Te Riaki. Family sources say that Tuakana died in 1937 at O-rangi-paka-kino. His tangihanga was held at Te Tahatu and Waiwharangi passed to Amoamo Te Riaki.
All who remember Tuakana say he was a small man. He had white hair, a small white beard and a very pale complexion. His funeral cortège of carts and horses wound around Makeo, past Tutamure, down to the estuary of the Waiaua River, where in the sand of the Ngati Rua cemetery of Te Rangi-o-matanui he was buried in an unmarked grave. His memory lives on. 'Kare tenei tangata i mate. Ma te ara umauma o tana tipuna a Tarawa hoki atu ia ki Hawaiki.' (This man did not die. Following the trail breasted by his ancestor Tarawa he returned to Hawaiki.)