According to family information, Maihi Parāone Kawiti was born in the Bay of Islands at Waiōmio, the cradle of Ngāti Hine, in 1807; his name at birth was Te Kūhanga. He was the third and youngest son of the chief Te Ruki Kawiti and his wife, Kawa. His two elder brothers were Taura and Wiremu Te Poro; he also had a half-sister, Tūwahinenui.
At Waimate North, on 27 December 1840, he was baptised and took the name Marsh Brown (Maihi Parāone), by which he was known thereafter. Under missionary guidance Maihi learned to read and write in Māori. He corresponded regularly with government officials and with friends and relatives, and many of these letters survive. In his will he left an account of events affecting Ngāti Hine during his lifetime. He also composed waiata, one of which is still sung by Ngāti Hine.
Maihi is said to have been slightly injured in battle at Te Ahuahu in 1845, and to have been sent to relatives at Mangakāhia for protection. It is possible that he was a teacher in a mission school at Mangakāhia for a time before returning home. The chieftainship of Ngāti Hine passed from Te Ruki Kawiti to Maihi soon after his father's death in 1854. Maihi's eldest brother, Taura, had been killed in battle, and although there were those among Ngāti Hine of higher descent, his leadership was never challenged.
Maihi, eager to establish peaceful relations with tribes outside the Ngāpuhi confederation, formed marriage alliances accordingly. He first married Huingariri, the daughter of Te Heke and Wairumaki of Ngāpuhi; they had one child, a son called Hirini. Maihi next wed Tere, from the Whanganui region; there were no children of this union. He was married a third time, to Hēningārino, from Waikato. Hēningārino gave birth to six children: three sons, Ranga, Te Riri and Huru; and three daughters, Hui, Warati and Te Here. Maihi's children were born and raised in Waiōmio on the Kamiria (Miria) marae.
Having inherited his father's role as mediator in the north, Maihi was called on to intervene in a number of inter-tribal disputes from the mid 1850s, and was usually able to persuade the parties to come to an agreement. He was also quick to take up a challenge and defend his mana. In 1857 Tāmati Wāka Nene insisted that Maihi raise the flagstaff on Maiki Hill at Russell. Maihi had promised his father he would carry out this task but he refused to do so at Nene's behest. The government had not attempted to raise the flagstaff after its felling during the northern war, and Maihi saw it as a gesture of good will that the hapū responsible for its destruction re-erect it.
There was, however, another reason for restoring the flagstaff. The Waikato people, then establishing Pōtatau Te Wherowhero as their king, had sent a deputation to Maihi, offering him the governorship of the north – a position second only to that of the king. Maihi resented taking second place to another and moved swiftly to assert his authority. A tree was felled and hauled by 400 men to Maiki Hill; by early 1858 the Queen's flag flew there once more on a new flagstaff called 'Te Whakakotahitanga o ngā iwi' (the unification of the two races). When Pōtatau's successor, Tāwhiao, visited Maihi at Waiōmio many years later in April 1885, Maihi again asserted his mana by greeting Tāwhiao with the words 'you are the chief of your territory, I am the chief of my territory. Ngāpuhi have their own chiefs as well. Leave it at that!'
Another example of Maihi's determination to protect his mana occurred in 1858, when Ngāpuhi announced their intention to establish a town at Ōkaihau. Maihi immediately responded with a proposal, made to the visiting governor, Thomas Gore Browne, to establish a town at Kawakawa. He offered to sell Kawakawa land. The government eventually concurred with Maihi and the township of Kawakawa came into existence; by the early 1860s it was a centre for coalmining.
During his visit to the north, Browne gave Maihi an ivory seal, Rongomau, in the shape of Queen Victoria's hand, as a token of unity and lasting peace between Māori and Pākehā. Maihi's account of these events, Ko te pukapuka o te kotahitanga ki te Rongomau, was later printed by the Northern Luminary office at Kawakawa. Soon after the re-erection of the flagstaff Maihi wrote to the government asking for a partial reimbursement of the costs incurred, but the request was refused. In early November 1861, at a meeting with Governor George Grey at Russell, Maihi referred to the raising of the flagstaff and subsequent events. He also reminded Grey that 'my father Kawiti went to Auckland where you made an oath to him and he made an oath to you. Then my father Kawiti departed for the other world with his oath still kept.' Maihi's view was that Kawiti's promise to nurture good relations between the races had been honoured, but the governor's undertaking to do likewise had been forgotten.
In January 1862 a hui was held at Kawakawa, for Ngāpuhi to appoint Maihi as chief, but at the last minute they changed their minds. Maihi responded to this slight by creating a boundary division, known as Te Rohe Pōtae o Ngāti Hine, between the lands of Ngāti Hine and Ngāpuhi. Ngāti Hine lands were also partitioned under the title of the people who occupied them at the time. In 1887 these sections became collectively known as the Mōtatau block.
In 1859 Maihi was appointed an assessor under the Native Circuit Courts Act 1858, a position he seems to have held intermittently until 1886. After 1876 Te Porowini (province) house at Taumārere was used by Maihi as a courthouse building. He also became a member of the official rūnanga which first met at Waimate in 1862. It was expected that members would return to their districts to uphold the law. The rūnanga system, however, was officially abandoned in 1865.
Maihi honoured the memory of his father, Kawiti, who, before his death, had outlined the needs of Ngāti Hine. One of his injunctions was that the people should be educated in the ways of the Pākehā. Maihi responded by opening a school in his meeting house, Mārama-tautini, on 29 September 1873. A meeting was held a month later to decide on a new site for a school building, to be paid for by the government. It was resolved that the school would be free to all Ngāti Hine children; others would have to pay.
A school was finally erected at Waiōmio in 1875, but it was poorly attended because of the long distances the children had to travel. Moreover the children were always hungry and the teacher, Daniel Lorrigan, could barely exist on the small salary granted to him by the government. Maihi's suggestion that a hostel be erected to accommodate these children was not taken up. He then arranged accommodation at Waiōmio and told the children's parents to go to the school and cook food for them. He also asked that the government supply food, but this request was refused on the grounds that European children were not supplied with food. In late 1876 school attendance was still poor.
Maihi was also involved in a number of business ventures. In late 1873 he established a flour and flax mill at Matairiri, Taumārere. He asked the government for £800 towards the construction of the mill and promised land as security in return. This enterprise might have succeeded had it not been for the frequent flooding of the mill site during heavy rain. In 1877 the mill was leased, but the new operator insisted that the mill be moved to Russell before continuous flooding completely destroyed it. In 1880 Maihi was forced to forfeit the mill and some lands to the government in payment for debts incurred. The failure of the venture was soon followed by the closure of the school in August 1880. By this time most of the local residents had left for the gumfields and had taken their children with them.
There was further trouble in 1880. In September Maihi clashed with William Sims, the contractor in charge of constructing the railway line through Taumārere to Ōpua. Maihi ordered him to halt all work in the vicinity of the mill site at Matairiri, and said that if the government wanted that piece of land then they would have to pay for it. Maihi was advised that under the Public Works Act 1876 construction gangs were permitted to venture on to private land and that the government would pay for the use of the land, but that Maihi would be fined if he continued to obstruct the contractor. Eventually the line continued through to Ōpua, without resistance from Ngāti Hine. However, Maihi continued to request payment for the land, which he considered had been taken without compensation.
During the government survey of the Ōpua lands Maihi became disillusioned about the influence of the Treaty of Waitangi, which his father had signed. In a letter to the chief surveyor of the Auckland provincial district, S. Percy Smith, he protested and, invoking the treaty, emphasised that the Ōpua land belonged to him. Despite such experiences, he strove to live in harmony with Pākehā and to understand the new laws to which he and his people were subject. However, Maihi refused to compromise on some issues. In 1881, angered by European intrusion into the valley of Waiōmio Caves, where Ngāti Hine ancestors were buried, Maihi wrote a terse note to T. P. Moody, mine manager at Kawakawa, stating that European trespassers would be prosecuted.
The same year Maihi's preoccupation with treaty issues took a new turn. With other chiefs from the north, he sought to protect threatened Māori land by lobbying for full implementation of the treaty. A meeting house, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, was erected by the northern tribes at Waitangi and opened in March 1881. It was to be a focal point for the discussion of treaty issues and a tangible reminder of the pledges that had been made by Māori and Pākehā. Ngāti Hine contributed money and labour towards its construction. At the opening of the house it was decided to establish a Māori parliament which would eventually be a national organisation parallel to the colonial parliament. Maihi strongly supported this move. The proposal was not favourably received by the colonial government, but the Waitangi rūnanga continued to meet and act on treaty issues. In 1882 they endorsed a petition to England asking for ratification of the treaty, and they began, with Maihi's assistance, to foster links with the King and Parihaka movements, although unity between the separate groups was not realised.
While supporting the idea of a Māori parliament, Maihi, along with many others, became increasingly suspicious of government attempts to introduce structures for Māori self-government; there was, for instance, opposition to the Native Committees Act 1883. However, the Ngāpuhi confederation eventually adopted a similar separatist approach to law making and enforcement. In 1884 it established independent tribal committees to govern on a local basis. That year Te Rapunga house was erected on the Miria marae and was used for the same purpose as Te Porowini house at Taumārere. New tribal laws came into force and those Ngāti Hine who offended had to pay a fine to Maihi, the kaiwhakawā (judge). This method of law enforcement continued among Ngāti Hine until Maihi's death.
Maihi continued to open up areas in the Bay of Islands for European settlement in accordance with a promise he made after the Maiki Hill flagstaff was re-erected. However, he realised that unless he were careful his own people could become landless. Te Rohe Pōtae o Ngāti Hine, originally intended as a partition of Ngāti Hine lands from those of Ngāpuhi, now served to deter the government from trespassing on Māori land. Maihi issued a declaration of ownership which was signed by his council of elders. The Rongomau seal was applied to the document, and in 1887 it was forwarded to the government.
In 1889 Maihi was a victim of a typhoid epidemic. On his deathbed, he requested that his wife Hēningārino be cared for by his nephew Hōterene Kawiti. He also appointed Hōterene as his successor; his eldest son, Hirini, had died, and the surviving sons of his third marriage, Ranga and Te Riri, were still very young. After Maihi's death at Waiōmio on 21 May 1889, Hōterene married Hēningārino, and a daughter called Mate resulted from this union.
Maihi's wish for a Christian burial was granted, but first the new burial ground, Wairere, which had been marked out on the rise opposite the Miria marae, had to be made sacred by his presence. His body was wrapped in ceremonial mats and buried in Wairere. It was later reinterred in the Otarawa burial ground, not far from the burial caves where Hineāmaru (the Ngāti Hine ancestress), his father Kawiti and a host of other Ngāti Hine ancestors lie.
Mārama-tautini, Maihi's house, was divided after his death. One half went to Kawakawa to serve as a public hall; the other half was taken by a relative to his farm at Waiōmio to be used as a family home. All that remains on the land where Mārama-tautini once stood is a large oak tree, planted during the official opening of the house, and a well, which has been sealed so that it will never be used again. This disused well is inhabited by frogs whose ghostly croaking can be heard by those who visit the historic site.