Heremia Te Wake belonged to Ngāti Manawa, a hapu of Te Kaitūtae and Te Rarawa. He was born at Te Karaka in the Hokianga district, probably in the 1830s, the son of William Hoard (known to his Māori family as Pire Hoa), a deserter from an American whaling ship, and Te Oki, a high-ranking woman of Te Rarawa. The name Te Wake came from an early incident in his life. He used to support a man crippled by arthritis, and, to encourage him to walk, would say 'wakewake' (hurry). The name Heremia (Jeremiah) came from his baptism as a Catholic, probably in the 1860s. An earlier name, Hōne (John), indicates an earlier baptism, probably as a Wesleyan. In his youth he worked as a timber worker and flax cutter. He used profits from trade to establish farms for his four brothers and three sisters and their families.
In the two years before 1869 10 people were shot in land feuds and revenge killings in Hokianga. They were mostly Ngāti Manawa killed by Ngāpuhi. In one incident in March 1868, Te Wake led a party of Te Rarawa across Hokianga Harbour to Whirinaki where a block of land was in dispute. Nuku, a man of Ngāti Kurī (who were living with Ngāpuhi), was shot dead. Te Wake accepted responsibility as leader of his party, although the shot was probably fired by Te Kawau, his younger brother. Te Wake gave himself up to the authorities, expecting a reprimand, but escaped when it became apparent he was going to be tried and probably convicted. War was now imminent between Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi. Two pa were fortified at Te Karaka and shots were fired across the strait between Te Karaka and Ōnoke.
In June the civil commissioner, James Mackay, and chiefs from other areas came to Hokianga to mediate. Te Wake was persuaded to surrender on a promise of a fair trial. On 14 June he surrendered at Te Karaka and on 20 June was sent to Mount Eden gaol in Auckland. Once subjected to prison life he decided to escape and scaled the prison wall. After some difficulty he reached friendly territory at Kaipara Harbour and returned home. He was later pardoned after representations were made to the native minister by chiefs who believed him to be innocent, and by the MHR for Northern Māori, Frederick Nene Russell.
In the years following his return Te Wake became a leader of Te Kaitūtae and Ngāti Manawa at Te Karaka, Whakarapa (Panguru), Waihou (Lower Waihou), Motutī and Motukauri – communities on the north side of Hokianga Harbour. He encouraged the adoption of European farming methods and improvements in housing and sanitation. He became chairman of a local school committee and mail contractor, by boat, for northern Hokianga. He was a farmer and held shares in the ownership of many land blocks in Hokianga. He sold land in 1875 and 1876 but later was against land selling. He had used the proceeds to buy livestock, and established a flour mill at Whakarapa. In 1886 he was appointed an assessor under the Resident Magistrates Act 1867. He was highly valued for his knowledge of Te Rarawa genealogy and traditions and for his commitment to the truth. He was nominated as a parliamentary candidate in the 1880s, and was a returning officer in the 1884 elections. In 1898 he was one of a number of leading Māori who helped persuade Te Māhurehure of Waimā to end their revolt against the dog tax without bloodshed.
Heremia Te Wake was deeply committed to the Catholic church. He was a catechist who instructed the young. In the absence of Catholic clergy from 1873 to 1880 in Hokianga he visited settlements and led communities in prayer: Father James McDonald found Catholicism flourishing in Hokianga on his arrival in 1880. Te Wake's leadership carried over into traditional religion too. Early in the 1900s he retrieved the bones of ancestors from their caves on Panguru mountain. Other burial caves in Hokianga had been discovered by Pākehā, who had removed precious objects to the Auckland Museum. Heremia was chosen as having the mana and tapu to move and rebury the remains safely.
Te Wake's first wife was Maraea (Maraia) Topia, whom he married probably early in the 1860s. They had seven children. He later married Kare Pauro Kawatihi. Their first child was Hōhepine (Whina), born in 1895; a second daughter, Heretute, was born in 1897. In 1914 Whina took a leading role in opposing the attempt of a Pākehā farmer to drain the mudflats at Whakarapa. Heremia did not want to break the law, but there was a danger that the land would be lost while he sought a legal remedy. Whina led the community in a passive resistance campaign, filling in the drainage ditches as they were dug. Although some of the participants were fined for trespass, through Heremia's representations to the local Māori MP, Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), the farmer's lease was cancelled and the mudflats remained.
Heremia's last years were marred by tension with his sons and nephews over the succession to his leadership. The community at Whakarapa was split and a second marae established. Kare Pauro died in June 1917. Heremia Te Wake died at Whakarapa on 29 November the following year in the influenza epidemic. His daughter Whina became the prominent Māori leader Whina Cooper, who launched the Māori Women's Welfare League in 1951 and organised the Māori land march of 1975.