Hōne Heke Ngāpua was born at Kaikohe, according to family information on 6 June 1869, the first of 12 children of Niurangi Pūriri and Hōne Ngāpua. A direct descendant of Rāhiri, he was connected to the major tribes of the north, but was most closely affiliated to Ngāpuhi through Ngāti Rāhiri, Ngai Tāwake, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Matarahurahu and Te Uri-o-Hua. Through his mother he was also of Ngāti Kahu, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Ngāti Kahungunu. Hōne Heke was named after his granduncle Hōne Heke Pōkai, who, after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, had led the opposition to the government to draw attention to their broken promises. Generally, he chose not to use his father's personal name of Ngāpua.
The family and tribal home was at Kaikohe. Hōne Heke attended Oromāhoe and Kawakawa native village schools. He showed early promise and his parents sent him to St Stephen's, Parnell, Auckland. After leaving school he worked for a while driving a bullock team operating between Kaikohe and Haruru, possibly for his father who owned a span of 12 bullocks. He then returned to Auckland to work as a clerk in the law firm of Devore and Cooper. Afterwards, Hōne Heke went back to Kaikohe where he helped to introduce rugby to the area and captained the Ngāpuhi team. The Hōne Heke cup, established as a trophy for competition between Māori teams in the north, commemorates the role he played in the development of rugby in North Auckland.
During his youth Hōne Heke was made aware of the continuing aspirations of Māori for unity and independence, initially expressed by the 1835 Confederation of the United Tribes of New Zealand. These ideas were expanded during the 1880s into the Kotahitanga movement, whose aims included control by Māori over Māori lands and a degree of autonomy in local government through a Māori parliament. In 1892 Hōne Heke may have accompanied a Ngāpuhi contingent to Waipatu, Hawke's Bay, to consider the formation of a Māori federation. They claimed the right to establish self-rule under the Treaty of Waitangi (especially article two) and clause 71 of the Constitution Act 1852.
At the second session of the Māori parliament in 1893 Hōne Heke may have asked permission to speak to the assembly, but his request was refused, no doubt because of his relative youth. It is said that he subsequently addressed the people outside and when Hōri Rīwhi and Nui Hāre, two of the Ngāpuhi elders, heard him, they were so impressed by his grasp of the concepts of Kotahitanga that he was asked to address the whole assembly. It is possible that Heke's speech outside the assembly took place about 19 April 1893. On that day a message was received in the Māori parliament that Te Kooti had died. It is said that Te Kooti had prophesied that a man of great understanding and knowledge would be revealed on the day of his death. The assembly adjourned to hear Heke on 28 April 1893. His ability to articulate and clarify issues for which a sense of direction was being sought was masterly, and the whole evening was given over to him.
The impact Hōne Heke made with Te Kotahitanga led to his gaining an influential position in the movement. He worked tirelessly and enthusiastically, travelling the country and gaining support. Te Kotahitanga was to become the strongest unifying force among Māori. The movement saw in him a natural successor to Eparaima Te Mutu Kapa, MHR for Northern Māori. In 1893, in his early 20s, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he would be better able to promote the objectives of Te Kotahitanga. During the fourth sitting of the Kotahitanga parliament in 1895 he was elected chairman of the Council of Paramount Chiefs. However, he declined the position because he believed the duties would clash with his responsibilities as MHR.
In the House, as in earlier Māori forums, he soon proved himself a gifted orator, articulate in stating a case clearly and in an orderly fashion. In 1894 he introduced the Native Rights Bill into the House. It asked for a constitution for Māori, protection of their rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, and for a separate parliament subject only to the governor to be set up. It would be empowered to legislate for and between Māori, especially with regard to their lands and other property. Support from outside the House was centralised through a Māori committee led by Tūreiti Te Heuheu. Tribal chiefs were staunch supporters, although Tainui people, anxious to promote their own King movement, rejected the bill, as did Te Whiti's followers in Taranaki. It was reintroduced in 1895 and 1896, and although finally defeated, some of its principles were later incorporated into the Māori Lands Administration Act and Māori Councils Act, both of 1900.
Hōne Heke maintained close contact with the Māori community and never forgot customary protocol. By following such procedures he was responsible for averting armed insurrection on two occasions. During a triangulation survey in Urewera in 1895 the Tūhoe people, unaware that the law allowed surveys to take place, took offence at strangers coming onto their land and resisted the intrusion. Forty armed soldiers were sent in to quell the disturbance. Even although the premier, Richard Seddon, publicly accused Hōne Heke and Wī Pere, MHR for Eastern Māori, of turning Tūhoe against the government, Heke counselled the chiefs Kererū and Numia and their people and brought their resistance to an end. In the Waimā valley in 1898, some of Te Māhurehure, led by Hōne Tōia, refused to pay the dog tax and other taxes imposed by the government and the Hokianga County Council. They armed themselves. When the government sent armed troops to stop the 'rebellion', Hōne Heke intervened to prevent bloodshed. Hōne Tōia responded to Heke's persuasion, laid down his arms, and surrendered to the law.
Throughout his parliamentary career Heke remained an advocate of legislative reform to improve conditions for Māori people. His impact in the House was considerable. It was said that there was never an empty seat when he spoke, whether on Māori or other issues. As MHR he lived an elegant lifestyle in Wellington where he mixed freely with his Pākehā colleagues. While his personal style and charm did much to break down prejudice and foster good relations between Māori and Pākehā, his dedication to his own people and other tribal groups and his forceful leadership ensured recognition of his mana by Māori. His influence did much to prepare the way for the work of the Young Māori Party.
Hōne Heke's contribution to the Māori community and the country at large would have been even greater had he lived longer. He died of tuberculosis in a private hospital in Wellington on 9 February 1909, thought to be aged 40. He had never married. Sir James Carroll and other Māori MPs returned Hōne Heke to his people in Kaikohe for burial on 21 February. He had been held in high regard and affection by both Māori and Pākehā – about 8,000 people came to mourn him. The burial service was conducted by Riu H. Parata and Kerēhi Manupiri.
In tribute to the honour shown in returning this son of Ngāpuhi to his tribal homeland, Heke's mother, Niurangi, offered Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) Ngāpuhi support to enter Parliament, despite the fact that he belonged to a non-northern tribe. Two years later a memorial stone to Hōne Heke was unveiled on Kaikohe hill. Parliamentarians (including the prime minister, Sir Joseph Ward), local body representatives and many others attended this final tribute to a man of substance.