Takaanui Tarakawa was born, according to his own account, in 1852. His mother, Te Whakaumata, also known as Patumoana, of Ngāi Te Rangi, was one of three or four wives of Te Ipututu Tarakawa, Takaanui's father. Takaanui believed that the union was first contracted about 1827, and was later solemnised, probably in the 1850s, in a Christian ceremony at Tūranga (Gisborne) by William Williams. At that time Takaanui, his parents, three older brothers and two sisters were all baptised: Te Ipututu Tarakawa took the name Īhāia, Te Whakaumata became known as Ana, and Takaanui himself was given the name Hōhāia. After the wars of the 1860s Takaanui was brought up among his father's Te Arawa people in the Te Puke area.
Takaanui Tarakawa's elders were people of great mana in the Bay of Plenty. Te Ipututu Tarakawa was a famous warrior, involved in most of the tumultuous events of the region in the early nineteenth century. Takaanui's paternal grandfather was Ngauru-o-te-rangi (Rauru-o-te-rangi) of Tapuika, and his grandmother was the famous chieftainess Te Ao-kapurangi of Tapuika and Ngāti Rangiwewehi. Her brothers, Te Kōhuru and Te Waro, were both highly tapu tohunga. All these people contributed to Takaanui's training in Te Arawa lore, tradition and history. It is probable that he learned to read and write Māori under missionary tutelage. His literacy skills were combined with a thirst for knowledge which he retained throughout his life.
Takaanui may have been married to Ngārōria of Ngāti Whakahemo, but they had no children of their own. He adopted two nieces, Hīpera (Hēpera) and Pīrangi; their names frequently appear in Takaanui's genealogies as his daughters. He also brought up as his son Pāora Tongariro, also known as Pāora Rangipaturiri.
From the 1880s, although his father and elder brothers were alive, Takaanui Tarakawa took a leading role in his family and hapu battles in the Native Land Court. From 1884 to 1891 he led the family's efforts to claim the Whakauma block near Te Puke. Takaanui claimed the land as a member of Ngāti Ngāuru, a hapū of Waitaha-a-Hei, and refused to join his case with others of Waitaha against Ngāti Rereamanu, Tapuika and other claimants. The family's efforts to claim the land they were actually occupying near Te Puke determined their choice of Waitaha rather than Ngāti Rangiwewehi and Tapuika lines of descent. They succeeded in having their interests in various blocks, including the Te Puke block, recognised, but the award of Whakauma to Waitaha excluded the Tarakawa family.
Takaanui Tarakawa became an expert land court witness, often sent for by judges to give evidence throughout the Bay of Plenty, and in places such as Ōtorohanga in the King Country. Experience with land dealings, surveyors and lawyers qualified him further; he often conducted cases for others, and after the turn of the century made some of his living as a native agent.
It was probably while working with survey parties that Takaanui Tarakawa encountered S. Percy Smith, from 1889 surveyor general but already planning the setting up of the Polynesian Society. From 1893 Takaanui began a voluminous correspondence with 'Te Mete' (Smith) and began publishing papers in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. His first major work, published in Māori in 1893, was translated and annotated by Smith, who gave it the English title 'The coming of Te Arawa and Tainui canoes from Hawaiki to New Zealand'. This records the canoes' departure and arrival, the placing of mauri (material symbols of life force) at different locations, and the places where various members of the crews settled. Takaanui's article also gives an account of the wars in the Maketu district in the time of his great-great-grandfather, Te Moemiti.
Takaanui's and Smith's methods are apparent from their correspondence. Smith provided Takaanui with exercise books, pens and pencils. Takaanui wrote and asked for more at regular intervals, but Smith never seemed to be able to satisfy his hunger for paper; he was often reduced to writing on the back of old issues of Te Kahiti o Niu Tireni (known as the Māori gazette), on land court notices or on printed copies of Māori land legislation. Takaanui would write his histories in a large, sprawling hand, increasingly neat as time went on; Smith would make a fair copy, standardising word division and introducing punctuation. He kept very closely to Takaanui's Māori texts when printing his work, but made the odd slight correction, such as substitution of the definite for the indefinite article, and occasionally deleted some of the sexually explicit details of ceremonies; his annotations were confined to the English text. Their source was sometimes Smith's own knowledge, sometimes other authorities, but was usually Takaanui's response to lists of questions asking for explanation and clarification of various points.
Takaanui Tarakawa was enormously enthusiastic about his historical work, sometimes lamenting that he did not have enough time for writing, business matters occupying his attention except on Saturdays. He told Percy Smith that although he was having distressing problems over land matters, none of them mattered in comparison with the importance of the work he was doing. He felt an urgency to preserve all he could, born of his presentiment that Māori were becoming extinct. He felt the need to discuss his work on an intellectual level, something he found he could not do with his own elders, who were unwilling to accept, as he did, that each tribal region would have a different version of events. He took every opportunity to discuss genealogy, canoe origins and such matters with experts from other districts. During 1893 and 1894, unhappy with the limitations of correspondence, he often suggested that he should visit Smith and the other members of the Polynesian Society's council so that they could clarify obscure issues face to face. Neither he nor the society were able to raise the necessary money.
Takaanui encountered opposition to his recording of tapu matters, some elders and experts feeling that if these did not remain hidden they would become commercialised and rendered spiritually valueless. He warned Smith not to advertise financial rewards for tribal information, lest knowledge of the gods become a source of food. Takaanui was not worried that Smith was learning the most esoteric matters, but he often enjoined him to be especially careful with his printing of genealogies; if they were incorrect, Takaanui would be in trouble with his people.
In 1894 Takaanui encountered criticism of his work from Hare Hongi Stowell in the Journal of the Polynesian Society. Stowell, clearly, was one of those who felt that some matters written about by Takaanui should have remained hidden. Takaanui responded fully to the criticisms in a paper, published in two parts in the same volume, which added considerably to the body of knowledge he had already made available.
In the same volume, Takaanui published his second major article, translated as 'The coming of Māta-atua, Kurahaupō, and other canoes from Hawaiki to New Zealand'. The first paragraph of the paper was taken by Smith from one of Takaanui's letters, written in another context, and no doubt inserted to strengthen Smith's developing theory of a great fleet. Takaanui made it clear in his accounts that various canoes departed from Hawaiki in groups of two or three, but that they did not form a 'fleet'.
Takaanui had treated Stowell's criticisms with courtesy, although clearly he had no great opinion of his expertise. He was much less tolerant of W. E. Gudgeon, who wrote to Smith, probably in 1894, voicing his concern that apart from his Te Arawa material, Takaanui's genealogies were internally inconsistent, and also inconsistent with Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu versions. Gudgeon admitted that 'there are no genealogies that will not be questioned by some tribe', but he believed that one correct genealogical sequence would eventually be established once Europeans had shown 'the fallacies'. It would not be done by Māori since 'we Europeans have the critical faculty'.
Smith must have passed on the gist of Gudgeon's remarks to Takaanui, who was incensed at his claims. He pointed out that he was kin to all those ancestors whose genealogies he had given; Gudgeon could hardly claim the same. He also claimed that Gudgeon's work was full of errors, and criticised Europeans generally for making uncritical use of 'whakapapa tango whenua' (land-taking genealogies) generated by the land court process. He pointed out that the source of his knowledge was the whare wānanga (house of learning), while Gudgeon's was the whare kōti (court house).
From 1897 to at least 1899 Takaanui lived with relatives at Takapau, Hawke's Bay, possibly because of trouble over his lands in the Bay of Plenty. While there he was invited by Pūrākau Maika, editor of the Māori newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi, to settle in Pāpāwai and assist in its production. Takaanui refused because his family were not keen on moving to Wairarapa. It was at Takapau that he collaborated with Pāora Rōpiha in producing the paper 'Mahu and Taewa-a-rangi'; Smith believed that it illustrated Māori life in the fourteenth century, particularly the perceived power of the tohunga.
While he was in southern Hawke's Bay, Takaanui began what was to be his last major work, a four-part history of Te Wera Hauraki's and Ngāpuhi's activities at Mokoia Island and elsewhere in the Bay of Plenty, on the East Coast, and in Hawke's Bay from about 1818 until the late 1830s. His sources included the accounts of his father, uncle and other older relatives who participated in the events. The first two instalments were published in 1899, the second two in the succeeding year.
By 1904 Takaanui was resettled at Te Puke. Although now more heavily involved in his land work and native agency, he continued to collect whakapapa and traditional accounts. He expected his relationship with Smith to be a reciprocal one, and did not hesitate to ask him to intervene when he had problems with land or surveyors. He asked Smith for copies of documents and maps he needed, and expected him to forward his mail to government offices.
In 1909 Takaanui became concerned about the preservation of Māori wāhi tapu (sacred sites) of special significance to the arrival of the various canoes, including sites at Whāngārā on the East Coast, Māhia in northern Hawke's Bay, and the relics known as the Tainui stones at Kāwhia, which were deemed to mark the resting place of the Tainui canoe. He attempted to pressure Smith into approaching the government to help preserve them. Smith wrote to Peter Buck, asking him to pass on Takaanui's request to the Māori MPs Hēnare Kaihau and Apirana Ngata. His hope was that the scenery preservation board would take responsibility, but no immediate action was forthcoming.
In 1909 Takaanui wrote a short paper, 'The story of Kataore: the pet taniwha of Tangaroa-mihi', and in 1911 he wrote his last (brief) article, on the ancestor Tarawhata who, assisted by his dogs, was deemed to have come from Hawaiki in the guise of a taniwha. He was angry with his dogs for landing before he did, and turned them to stone on Mt Maunganui. Takaanui recounted that in January 1910 he went and fetched those stones, first removing the tapu by incantations. With the help of a Pākehā and Āperahama Tamaiwhakangaro of Ngāti Whakaue he loaded them on to a steamer, then crossed to Matakana Island and took other stones brought to New Zealand in Tainui. He was able to perform these acts because of his descent from the ancestors concerned. He placed the stones on the two altars in the carved pā at Whakarewarewa.
Takaanui's correspondence with Smith ended in 1909. He drops from the public record from 1910 until 1917. In that year his name appeared on one of three Te Arawa petitions to James Allen, the minister of defence, asking that Te Arawa be exempt from the proclamation of 1917 extending compulsory military service to Māori.
Takaanui Tarakawa had been known at Te Puke as Tamaohu, but when residing on his paternal grandmother's lands at Awahou he was known as Takaanini. He was remembered as a man of great spiritual significance and fearfully respected as a tohunga of the highest rank. His many whakapapa books of descent lines of the Bay of Plenty were held in the highest respect. In his final years Takaanui Tarakawa was cared for by his relative, Neti Yates. He died at Awahou on 11 December 1919, and is presumed to be buried with his father's people in the ancient cemetery, Ōtaraninia, next to the Waiari Stream in Te Puke.