Rāhui Te Kiri was born at Pākiri, on the east coast of Northland, in 1830 or 1831. Her father was Te Kiri, a chief of Ngāti Wai, and of Te Kawerau and Ngāti Manuhiri hapū of Ngāti Whātua. Rāhui's mother was Pepei of Ngāti Whātua, probably of Te Taoū hapū. Rāhui inherited Te Kiri's land rights at Pākiri, Ōmaha, Great Barrier Island (Aotea), Little Barrier Island (Hauturu) and other off-shore islands. In childhood she lived at Pākiri, at Ōmaha and on Little Barrier Island. As a young woman she married Te Rua (Roa), the son of Pōhuehue of Ngāti Wai. They lived at Pākiri until his death, probably in the late 1850s, when her father and his elder brother, Te Urunga, decided to give Rāhui in marriage to Te Heru Tenetahi.
Tenetahi, also known as Wiremu, was born on Aotea, probably in 1826 or 1827. He claimed to be the son of Pōhuehue and the grandson of Te Heru of Ngāti Taka hapū of Ngāti Wai. He said his mother was Totoro, and denied suggestions by interested parties that he had European ancestry. There is no record of how he became literate in English.
Sometime in the late 1860s Tenetahi and Rāhui settled permanently on Little Barrier Island and began to stock it with pigs and cattle. They were joint chiefs over the small group of Ngāti Wai occupants. Māori and European workmen were employed to dig gum and cut firewood and kauri timber for sale in Auckland. After the death of Rāhui's father, Te Kiri, probably about 1872, they lived in his weatherboard house south of Te Tītoki Point. A number of their 10 children were born on the island. Sometime after 1872 a scow, the Irene, was built for them, partly paid for by sales of Rāhui's land on the mainland. It was crewed by Tenetahi and his sons, and was constantly employed in coastal trade or on the mail run to Little Barrier Island. Rāhui lived sometimes at Ōmaha but usually on the island, bringing up her family and visited by Tenetahi when the wind was in the right quarter. They grew and traded kumara renowned for their size and quality, and took pigeons and mutton-birds.
The years of peaceful trading from Little Barrier Island came to an end once European interest in the island became serious. At first interested in the island for defence purposes, Crown officials began purchase operations about 1878. This initiated a long-running and expensive battle for ownership between Ngāti Whātua chiefs and the Tenetahi family and other Ngāti Wai occupants of the island. At a Native Land Court hearing in July 1880, the island was awarded to Te Hēmara Tauhia of Te Kawerau and others of various Ngāti Whātua hapū. Rāhui and Tenetahi were not included in the list of grantees. In May 1881 the case was reheard at the request of Rāhui and other Ngāti Wai. The judge, Francis Dart Fenton, refused to make a decision; at another rehearing in June the island was awarded to Rāhui, Tenetahi and three other Ngāti Wai. A month later Little Barrier Island was gazetted as under negotiation, which restricted its sale to any purchaser but the Crown.
Three years of peace followed in which the Crown's negotiations to buy the island got no further. Perhaps for this reason the case was reopened in February 1884 under the provisions of the Special Powers and Contract Act 1883. The island was awarded to Te Kawerau; Rāhui's (but not Tenetahi's) name was included in the list of grantees. A further rehearing was held in October 1886 at which Fenton conducted Ngāti Wai's case. The island was awarded to those of Ngāti Wai who could prove occupation; Rāhui and Tenetahi headed the list of grantees.
On the same day this decision was delivered, Andreas Reischek read a paper to the Auckland Institute on the birds of Little Barrier Island. Fenton was in the audience, and suggested that the island should be purchased for the preservation of native birds. The suggestion was taken up by Reischek and Thomas Cheeseman, the secretary of the institute, and approved by the premier, Sir Robert Stout. In December 1891 the governor, Lord Onslow, advocated the acquisition of Little Barrier Island as a refuge for the stitchbird and other native birds becoming rare on the mainland.
Earlier in 1891 Tenetahi had been approached to sell Little Barrier to the Crown. By Tenetahi's own account he agreed to sell for £3,000 because he still owed Fenton money for his land court appearances. He stipulated that no distribution of money should take place until these expenses had been met. Government land purchase officers then induced some of the other grantees to take the case to the land court to have their interests defined by subdivision. In an 1892 hearing Tenetahi was awarded a tenth share, Rāhui and two of their children one-thirtieth each, in their absence. Crown officers then began purchasing the shares of the other grantees.
Because their proviso had been ignored, Tenetahi, Rāhui and others gave notice on 7 January 1892 that they had withdrawn their consent to the sale and invited tenders for the cutting of the island's kauri timber, which Ngāti Wai had agreed should be Tenetahi's property. A contract for £1,000 was let to S. W. Brown on 12 March 1892. Tenetahi, Rāhui and Brown were served with injunctions for trespass in December 1892, and they left the island temporarily. In 1893, Tenetahi received a favourable response to a petition to Parliament, but the next year, to enable the government to transfer the interests of the Tenetahi family to the Crown, the Little Barrier Island Purchase Act was passed. The monetary shares of Rāhui, Tenetahi, their daughter Ngāpeka, and two others were paid into the office of the public trustee in Auckland, but Tenetahi, Rāhui and their daughter refused to accept their money.
In December 1894, and again in 1895, Tenetahi and one of his sons accused Charles Robinson, the caretaker appointed in 1893, of shooting and preserving stitchbirds and sending them to the ornithologist Sir Walter Buller. Gerhard Mueller, the commissioner of Crown lands for the Auckland district, at first concluded that Tenetahi's accusations sprang from ill will against Robinson, who had offered to pay Tenetahi's son far less than he wanted for stitchbirds. Eventually, Robinson was dismissed. Mueller warned the Māori owners they were trespassing, but Tenetahi would not acknowledge the legality of the government's purchase. Mueller suggested various draconian methods of getting rid of the Tenetahi family, but concluded that the whole business was futile since the stitchbird was doomed anyway.
As a consequence of a case alleging trespass, Ngāti Wai were ordered to leave Little Barrier by 10 December. Finally, various officials, policemen and artillerymen arrived at dawn on 20 January 1896 and removed Tenetahi, Rāhui, the other Ngāti Wai and the few European residents on the steamer Nautilus. There was only passive resistance. Tenetahi and Rāhui were landed at Devonport in Auckland, but were promised they could return to remove their livestock and possessions.
The government's expense and embarrassment continued throughout 1896 as negotiations to hand over the island to the Auckland Institute proceeded. Tenetahi, determined to get the money he was owed, left his stock on the island. When tenders were called for its removal so that the Crown could recoup some of its expenses, he removed it himself. The final irony was the arrival on the island of the Auckland Institute's inspection team in January 1897 to find that Tenetahi had removed the only habitable cottage.
Tenetahi continued to demand compensation for his land court expenses and possessions as late as 1902, but it seems to have been a lost cause. For years he and Rāhui, sometimes known as Mrs Tenetahi, refused to collect their money from the public trustee. Wiremu Tenetahi died on 27 June 1923 aged 96, and Rāhui Tenetahi died on 24 February 1930 aged 99. They are buried in the cemetery at Te Kiri marae near Leigh.
The beneficiaries of the saga were the stitchbirds: their numbers increased, and in the late twentieth century they were re-introduced to the Hen and Chickens Islands, and Cuvier and Kapiti islands.