Tame Haereroa Parata was born on Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait, probably between 1832 and 1838. His father, Captain Trapp, known as Kāpane Terapu, was an American whaler from Massachusetts. His mother was Koroteke, a woman of aristocratic descent of Ngāti Huirapa, a hapū of Ngāi Tahu, and of Ngāti Mamoe and Waitaha. An account of the origin of the name Parata says that Tame took his father's name, Trapp, and reversed it to Pratt, which was rendered in Māori as Parata. Tame Haereroa Parata was occasionally referred to as Thomas Trapp, or Pratt.
Tame's father died when he was only a child, and as was the custom he was adopted and brought up by his great-uncle, Haereroa. He spent his early years at Waikouaiti where he worked at Johnny Jones's whaling station, and later joined the pilot crew at Otago Heads. Through this work he came to the attention of Sir George Grey who sought to take him to Auckland for formal education. Parata declined the invitation because he was reluctant to leave his people. He married Peti Hurene, also known as Elizabeth Brown, a woman of high rank, at Dunedin on 12 September 1855; they were to have at least 11 children.
Parata turned to farming and was eventually awarded a grant of land at Puketeraki, north of Dunedin, in 1868. Ten years later he owned a farm of some 200 acres – the largest in the Puketeraki reserve. His leadership qualities were soon recognised and he was said to possess 'a rare capacity for ruling wisely'. He hired a European to teach him to plough and then passed on the skill to his neighbours. Parata organised the local farming community to purchase their own reaper and a steam threshing machine. He was also responsible for the introduction of sheepfarming to the area.
At Parata's instigation and after long and tedious negotiation with local authorities, a school was opened at Puketeraki in 1875 with 24 pupils. Parata ensured that his own children received a sound education. He was also a deeply religious man and helped establish the Anglican church at Puketeraki.
Tame Parata entered the House of Representatives in 1885 as member for Southern Māori; he held this seat until 1911, and was a member of the Legislative Council from 1912 to 1917. His political career was dominated by his attempt to redress Ngāi Tahu grievances arising from the land purchases earlier in the century. Promised reserves had not been set aside and Ngāi Tahu had been reduced to virtual poverty. Much of the South Island had been lost to them.
Parata constantly reproached governments for not treating Māori grievances in good faith: 'It seems to me', he said in 1888, 'that all legislation passed by this House affecting Native lands has contained some objectionable provision legalising, or in some way dealing with, questionable transactions of the past.' In a further plea to Parliament in 1904 he said: 'The land is the life-blood of the Māori. If a man, Sir, has no land what does he live for? We Māoris do not want to see ourselves put in the position that some Europeans are in – having absolutely nothing, begging for subsistence, and looking for work.'
As a result of Parata's constant reminders of the inadequate provision made for Ngāi Tahu and other South Island Māori after the land sales, a joint committee of both houses of Parliament was set up in 1886. The former native reserves commissioner, Alexander Mackay, who was sent to the South Island to investigate the claims, produced a report in 1891 that recommended a complete settlement. His efforts, ably supported by Parata, came to almost nothing: the amount of land set aside for landless South Island Māori was only a fraction of that recommended. In addition, much of the land that was granted was mountainous, barren and totally unsuitable for settlement; the grants were awarded only after long delays; and the lack of land surveys culminated in Parata being taken to task by his constituents for his apparent lack of 'any genuine interest in their welfare'. In 1903 Parata attacked the government: 'I am told by them [his constituents] that I am humbugging them in regard to this land, and that I have allowed the Government to humbug me, and that the Government never had any intention to do anything beyond making promises in order to secure my continued support.'
Parata welcomed the South Island Landless Natives Act 1906, which was an attempt by the government finally to introduce legislation that set aside land for Ngāi Tahu; but he objected strongly to a number of clauses by which Māori would be disadvantaged. Although the act appeared to provide the means by which a fair settlement could be made for Ngāi Tahu, in reality by 1914 very little had been achieved. A further commission of inquiry was established in 1914, but this also failed to achieve an effective solution. It was not until 1921, four years after Parata's death, that the government finally recognised the claims. That year, too, a trust fund was established which enabled Ngāi Tahu to improve their education, health and welfare situation, a goal Parata had long fought for, unsuccessfully, in Parliament.
Tame Parata died at Puketeraki on 6 March 1917. By his unceasing reminders to the government of their responsibilities, obligations and duties to the Māori he had helped to prepare the way for the next generation of Māori politicians to achieve in their lifetime what could not be done in his. Many of the things Parata had fought for were more widely recognised only with the Waitangi Tribunal's findings on the Ngāi Tahu claim in 1991.