Hikapuhi (Te Hikapuhi) Poihipi was born at Rotorua probably sometime between 1860 and 1871. She was the 10th and youngest child of Wiremu Poihipi and Harete Ngaputu (also known as Harete Manuhuia). Her mother, and possibly also her father, was of Ngati Te Rangiunuora, a hapu of Ngati Pikiao of Te Arawa, whose people lived at both Rotoiti and Maketu. The family had shares in the Paengaroa North block, near Maketu, and in various blocks near Rotoiti. As a young woman, Hikapuhi formed a relationship with Alfred Clayton, a surveyor; they had at least eight daughters and three sons. Their marriage was formalised at Rotorua on 19 May 1906.
Hikapuhi came to prominence as a healer about 1905. For some time she had been living in Otaki, and that year she toured the districts of Ngati Toa and Ngati Raukawa. She went on to visit places from Rotorua to the South Island, where her healing methods resulted in a lawsuit. She was probably at work in Hawke's Bay in 1906, and her activities were reported unsympathetically in the Anglican Maori newspaper Te Pipiwharauroa.
Hikapuhi called herself a nurse, not a tohunga. She quickly gathered disciples, both men and women. Her medicine was Three Star brandy – a very potent variety – administered neat, sometimes in large doses, accompanied by the words 'kia ora, kia ora' (be well). She was said to be a disciple of Te Wereta, a tohunga living at Mangatu, inland from Poverty Bay.
Hikapuhi was credited with various miracles, including the curing of a blind person at Wairoa, but she lost credibility when one of her patients, Peka Kerekere, a prominent Gisborne chief, died after treatment. Te Pipiwharauroa alleged that at Te Pahou she encouraged people to dance to exhaustion on Sunday, and conducted a ceremony in which men, and women wearing white wedding-style clothing, were wedded to the spirits in the clouds and the water and under the earth. She then prayed for healing power to be bestowed on her 'apostles'.
In 1906 Maui Pomare, health officer to Maori, attempted unsuccessfully to stop Hikapuhi's operations, by now based in Wairarapa. Local Maori health inspectors reported that her activities were encouraging drunkenness. Even babies were made to drink brandy, and Pomare reported that children were sent to school with narrow bottles filled with brandy under their clothes from which they took nips at recess. Several of Hikapuhi's followers had been prosecuted for supplying liquor to Maori women, and Pomare suggested indirectly that Hikapuhi should also be prosecuted.
The antipathetic attitude of officialdom to Hikapuhi's work was not reflected in the attitude of her patients. In August 1906 Hoani Te Rangi-taka-i-waho sent a testimonial signed by over 30 Papawai people to James Carroll, then native minister. He explained that many people had had their wounds dressed and sicknesses cured by Hikapuhi, who had taken no pay – all her work had been done from aroha (compassion). Also, patients were cured who might otherwise have died, and Hikapuhi represented the only medical help available to those unable to pay for medicines or doctors, or who were afraid to visit the European chemist. Te Rangi-taka-i-waho petitioned the government to grant licences to Hikapuhi and her fellow nurses, and asked that her use of brandy as a medicine should not be prohibited by doctors or police.
Nevertheless, the campaign against Hikapuhi continued. During the debate in 1907 on the Tohunga Suppression Bill, A. L. D. Fraser, MHR for Napier, said her influence was more demoralising than that of Rua Kenana. In July 1908 Taiawhio Te Tau, chairman of the Rongokako Maori Council and the local Maori health inspector, alleged that three deaths had resulted from Hikapuhi's ministrations. He escorted police sergeant Nathaniel Miller to Te Ore Ore pa; Miller reported overcrowding in primitive conditions at a hui, but found no evidence of excessive drinking. The deaths of four children, all of tuberculosis, could not be attributed to Hikapuhi or her nurses.
Both the Native Department and Pomare seemed reluctant to assume responsibility for the state of Maori health in Wairarapa, and both put the onus of action onto the Rongokako Council. But Te Tau did not want responsibility either. He suggested that it was the government's responsibility to remove Hikapuhi from his district. In 1909 the influential Wairarapa leader Hoani Paraone Tunuiarangi alleged that 20 people had died under Hikapuhi's hands, and that she had provoked liquor consumption and quarrelling on visits to Gisborne and Wairoa. However, most of the complaints seemed to be against her followers. Hikapuhi herself had been investigated by the Rongokako Council and acquitted of any wrongdoing. Many Maori had signed a petition asking the Rongokako Council to authorise her work. In July 1909 Apirana Ngata urged that Hikapuhi should be prosecuted under the Tohunga Suppression Act 1907; Carroll's response in May 1910 was 'No action'.
Hikapuhi's activities gradually ceased. The weight of official disapproval had its effect, and her methods lost favour as the number of nurses working in Maori health was increasing. Her work was undermined by the irresponsible actions of some of her disciples. The last mention of her working in Wairarapa was in 1913. When she visited Wellington in 1915 it is clear that her vogue was at an end. Her husband died in Ohinemutu, Rotorua, on 13 June 1913. Hikapuhi may have returned to her Te Arawa kin at this time; she died in Rotorua on 6 January 1934.
Hikapuhi's powers as a prophet and tohunga put her patients in touch with the Maori cosmogony, healed their spirit and gave them hope. Her achievement was summed up by A. L. D. Fraser in the course of condemning her: she 'went from town to town and from kainga to kainga, and as she wandered all through the colony her mana spread with her. She had a halo, a glamour of almost godlike attributes'. To Europeans and to the Maori establishment Hikapuhi was a nuisance and a symbol of their own failure; to many Maori she provided the only medical care they were likely to get.