Te Pairi Tūterangi was born probably in the 1840s at Maungapōhatu, in the heart of the Urewera country. Through his father, Tūterangi, he had connections to Tamakaimoana of Maungapōhatu, Te Whakatōhea of Ōpōtiki and Ngāi Tūterangi of Tūhourangi, Te Arawa. His mother, Emeria or Meri Maraki of Waimana, was connected to Te Arawa and to Ngāi Tūranga of Tūhoe. Te Pairi had one brother, Nāhiri, and three sisters, Tike, Waikohu and Kārepe.
At the age of seven Te Pairi was dedicated to the war god Tūmatauenga and came under the tutelage of his famous uncle, Te Whiu Maraki, in the traditional martial arts of the Māori warrior. He became an expert in several weapons, notably the taiaha and the toki poutangata (greenstone adze). During the wars of the 1860s he set aside traditional weapons in favour of the gun. While staying with his Te Whakatōhea relations at Ōpōtiki in March 1865, he witnessed the trial and execution of the Reverend Carl Völkner. When the government began its punitive raids against the local Māori people he took refuge with his Tūhoe relatives in Waimana and then Maungapōhatu. In 1868, when Te Kooti retreated to Urewera, Te Pairi and Te Whiu flew to his support. Te Whiu became a close friend and adviser of Te Kooti in both military and spiritual matters. He and Te Pairi were involved in many skirmishes and battles in the Urewera and Taupō regions.
During lulls in the war Te Kooti encouraged his followers to establish carving schools, and it was at this time Te Pairi began to acquire his knowledge of carving. Te Kooti also delighted in holding horse-racing events, presumably to provide relief from the grim reality of warfare. Because of his spare build Te Pairi was favoured as a jockey and was an expert horseman. He maintained this interest for the rest of his life, and songs were composed about Te Pairi and his horses.
After the wars Te Pairi married Te Maromako, a woman from Ngāti Hinekura of Waikaremoana. They had seven children: Eretini, Hopa, Wirihana, Tarakawa, Te Kirikau, Pita and Nāhiri. When Te Kooti took refuge in the King Country under King Tāwhiao in 1872 he commissioned the building and carving of Te Tokanganui-a-noho meeting house at Te Kūiti, and Te Pairi found an opportunity to further his knowledge of carving. A devout adherent of the Ringatu faith, he became one of Te Kooti's messengers, taking his leader's prophecies to areas still closed to him. In 1883 when Te Kooti was pardoned, Te Pairi accompanied him to the many marae in Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. It was on these visits that he developed his oratorical prowess. After Te Kooti died in 1893 Te Pairi returned to settle on his mother's lands at Te Hukitaia in Waimana valley. He then moved to nearby Piripari and much later settled further up the valley at Ōmuriwaka.
Te Pairi Tūterangi's mastery of many skills made him a revered leader of Tūhoe, but he was best known for his distinctive style of oratory. He was an eloquent and charismatic speaker and this was enhanced by the way he used the marae as his stage. An impressive figure, with white hair and flowing beard, wearing long greenstone ear pendants and gesturing with his toki (adze), he would strut, run with short steps and leap into the air to give emphasis to his words. Immediately on landing he would flick his outside foot behind him and continue in the opposite direction. He never stood in one place, reasoning that it was more difficult for opposing tohunga to direct mākutu at him. He usually wore a rāpaki (kilt) when speaking, and if he was wearing European clothes he would deliberately remove his shoes, socks and trousers and wrap a blanket around his waist before starting. He was seemingly impervious to cold and pain. On one occasion after leaping in the air he landed on a piece of bone which pierced his foot. He sat down, removed the fragment and continued. His close relative the chief of Tūhourangi, Mita Taupopoki, gave him the nickname Te Pairi Tarapekepeke (Te Pairi the leaper), which conveyed his volatile nature.
Te Pairi was a fount of traditional lore. An expert genealogist, he could recite his whakapapa back many generations. He attended schools of learning in the Mātaatua and Te Arawa areas to debate whakapapa issues. He was also knowledgeable about rituals concerning women and childbirth. When a woman had difficulty giving birth she would be taken to Te Pairi, who would build a sweat house of fern. Twelve stones would be heated and then placed in the house four at a time. The patient would be admitted and women assistants would massage her. Te Pairi directed the assistants and intoned the correct karakia. By the time the 12 stones were used up there would be a successful delivery.
Te Pairi's skill with the taiaha became legendary. Well into the twentieth century he engaged in combat with other notable exponents. In the late 1920s he and Hōri 'Mau Taiaha' Hōhua of Ngāti Koura had an epic battle with this weapon at Tauarau marae in Rūātoki. At Ruatāhuna and Maungapōhatu he met the challenges of Te Ānewa Te Aare, Te Mata Kiripā and Te Kēhua. At Te Poroporo pā close to Whakatāne he clashed with the local Ngāti Pūkeko exponent. Less skilled men were quick to defer to him. Once, while visiting Waikirikiri marae at Rūātoki, he chanced upon a brawl. He spread his cloak on the ground close to the fighting men and warned them that whoever stepped on his cloak would be fodder for his toki. The fighting stopped immediately.
Practising another of the skills learned in his youth, Te Pairi carved Te Maungaroa and Whakarae meeting houses in the Waimana valley. At Ōmuriwaka he built a meeting house with the assistance of Mātānuku, a carpenter from Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, and executed all the carvings. When this house, Te Tatau-ki-a-Hape-Tūārangi, was ready he invited his Tūhourangi relatives from Te Arawa to perform the opening ceremony. During the ceremony he detected a deliberate departure from the usual ritual, which would have placed the spiritual integrity of the house at risk. He challenged the offending tohunga, pointing to his mouth and saying, 'This is where you will enter'; he then pointed to his posterior, saying, 'And this is where you will come out!' All the while his toki was quivering in his hand. The matter was attended to with haste.
His practical accomplishments included the ability to weave fine feather cloaks. He would get the young men of Waimana to catch kiwi and other birds and then he would cut himself off from the community to weave his cloak. He never wore a Māori garment unless he had made it himself. He was ever mindful that his tapu might be affected by the noa nature of women, or by mākutu if the garment was given by an outside tribe. Any cloaks given as presents were consigned to decorate his meeting house.
At the beginning of the twentieth century Te Pairi heaped scorn on Rua Kēnana, who was emerging as a prophet and leader, and ridiculed his followers. As a staunch disciple of Te Kooti and the Ringatu faith he threatened to feed Rua to his taiaha, called Tamakaimoana, if he ever set foot in the Waimana valley. His uncle Te Whiu, who was more circumspect, counselled tolerance and Te Pairi confined his threat to Ōmuriwaka. By the 1920s his stance towards Rua had softened greatly. At Rua's death in 1937 Te Pairi was responsible for welcoming the visitors and for intoning the traditional incantations befitting a person of chiefly status. Later he would have the doctrine of Rua's faith written on a bed sheet and hung in his house. However, he did not join Rua's followers.
In 1927 he played the part of Te Kooti in a silent film called The Te Kooti trail, drawing on his intimate knowledge of the subject. The following year he played a minor role in Under the Southern Cross. The main part was played by his lifelong friend and fellow Tūhoe chief Tū Rakuraku. At one point Te Pairi was responsible for rescuing the film from production disaster. The Māori actors absolutely refused to play-act the tangihanga and other tapu ceremonies unless Te Pairi uttered the appropriate karakia. He was rewarded handsomely, but the film was a flop.
As time went on Te Pairi Tūterangi was regarded as one of the last links between the old world and the new. At the death of his friend Tū Rakuraku in 1938, Tūhoe witnessed Te Pairi re-enact an old custom. At the entrance to the marae he released his horse. He was completely naked except for a chaplet of petipeti leaves on his head; in his hand was his taiaha. He then crept and writhed on to the marae like an eel and at intervals he would strike the ground with the blade of his weapon. He continued until he reached the body. There he sat for nine days without taking food. During that time the chaplet began to dry up and wither and Te Pairi seemed to the people to take on the appearance of a ngārara (reptile) with the passing of each day. Observers were in awe of the spectacle. As the coffin was being closed he took off his chaplet and cut his hair, placing leaves and hair-clippings in the coffin. The women sitting with the body followed suit.
Te Pairi was by this time absolute chief of his people. He ordered that all women of Waimana be tattooed to commemorate the death of Tu. By doing this the women would be seen to take a more mature role, thus ensuring the mana and tapu of Tūhoe at Waimana. On the other hand he forbade women to speak on the marae of Mātaatua and Te Arawa. On one occasion he refused Te Puea Hērangi an opportunity to speak. In areas outside his influence, where women were allowed to speak, he refused to acknowledge them. When a woman got up to greet him on a Ngāti Kahungunu marae he and his people rose and crossed the marae, completely ignoring the woman, entered the meeting house and after a few moments reappeared. They recrossed the marae, moved to their bus and left for Waimana without having uttered a word. The Ngāti Kahungunu hosts feared that Te Pairi and his kin had performed some rite of mākutu in their meeting house. Nothing happened, but it took a long time for the local people to breathe easily again.
Because his own family were in awe – even frightened – of Te Pairi they did not sit with him, which meant his knowledge could not be passed on. His one student was Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki chief Te Kani Te Ua, who took instruction under strict tapu for several weeks. At the end of the learning period Te Pairi gave Te Kani his greenstone ear pendants to mark the occasion. Te Kani wore these pendants thereafter.
Te Pairi was fastidious in all aspects of his daily life. He was particular about his food and people took delight in singing bawdy songs during meals to put him off. His strict adherence to tapu meant that if his or someone else's shadow darkened his food he would immediately stop eating. He was fond of the occasional whisky and liked wearing suits and top hats – as long as they were not made by women or Māori.
Te Pairi held firmly to the old ways and did not learn to speak English. Yet he supported education for the children of Waimana and was a member of the Waimana Native School committee. In early 1907 he represented the owners of several Tūhoe land blocks at hearings of the Urewera Commission, and he was a member of the General Committee of the Urewera District Native Reserve until 1910. Te Pairi lived to a great age and died on 22 November 1954 at Ōmuriwaka.