Tene Waitere belonged to Ngāti Tarāwhai, who were kin to Ngāti Pikiao and Tūhourangi of Te Arawa of Rotorua. His mother was Ani Pape, the daughter of Te Rāhui, a prominent Ngāti Tarāwhai leader. As a young girl, she was captured during the Ngāpuhi attack on Rotorua in 1823 and taken as a slave to North Auckland, where she was forcibly married to Waitere. Tene was born probably in 1853 or 1854 at Mangamuka.
When Tene was only a few years old an uncle brought Ani Pape and her two children back to Rotorua. They settled at Ruatō, on Lake Rotoiti, where Tene was trained as a carver by Wero Tāroi, the master carver of the Ngāti Tarāwhai school. Although Tene may have worked on some of the last big carved canoes, he established his reputation by working with Wero, Ānaha Te Rāhui and Neke Kapua on several new meeting houses around Rotorua and Taupō.
Tene married Ruihi Te Ngahue of Tūhourangi. They often lived at Te Wairoa and Te Ariki with Ruihi's people; he worked between times on houses with Wero and other Te Arawa carvers. They had one child, a daughter named Tuhipō (Rimupae). At the time of the Tarawera eruption in 1886 Tene and his family were living at Te Wairoa and were among the survivors who sheltered in the famous carved house, Hinemihi. The family were then given land at Ngāpuna and Whakarewarewa by Ngāti Wāhiao. Although times were hard, Tene managed to provide for his family through hunting, fishing and building. Later his commercial carving activity became a main source of income.
The manager of the Geyser Hotel at Whakarewarewa, Charles E. Nelson, employed Tene as a professional carver from 1892. In his workshop behind the hotel he carved big pieces to decorate the hotel and thermal areas; he also carved tobacco pipes, walking-sticks and replicas of traditional artefacts for sale to Europeans. Many distinguished visitors to Rotorua, including British royalty, were presented with his work. One major project on which he worked was the erection for Nelson of Rauru, a fully carved meeting house featuring legendary and mythical personalities chosen to illustrate the Rotorua legends that guides would tell to tourists. Rauru was sold in 1903, eventually going to the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg. Nelson purchased a set of old Ngāti Tarāwhai carvings in 1904, and employed Tene and Neke Kapua to complete a new meeting house, Nuku-te-apiapi, for his tourists. Tene was commissioned to produce meeting houses for knowledgeable Europeans; he soon developed a fairly standardised small meeting house that satisfied their needs.
Tene's carvings show greater diversity than those of his contemporaries. He worked on Te Tiki-o-Tamamutu, Kearoa, Rauru, Tūhoromatakaka, Uenukukōpako, Tiki and Hinemihi. At the Whakarewarewa village he carved the gateways, some of the house named Hatupatu, a small storehouse, most of the stockade-post figures and an open octagonal lookout shelter in the thermal area. He carved massive mantelpieces in the Grand Hotel, Auckland, and the Grand Hotel, Rotorua, and a panel of relief heads, a photograph of which was used in Augustus Hamilton's book Māori art. He carved the shelter which stands over the bust of Queen Victoria at Ōhinemutu, and the ornamental gateway at Taupō waterfront.
As the commercial demand for tourist art and authentic replicas became intense in the later 1890s, Tene was by far the most prolific carver. His basic designs could be used repeatedly with slight variations to avoid the appearance of mass production. He took the opportunity provided by European patronage to produce some of the most innovative carvings yet seen at Rotorua. This work shows the influence of European concepts of time and space, and is naturalistic in a way impossible in his more orthodox productions. Tene carved figures in oblique profiles, or sprinting across a panel, their bodies twisting in the effort of running; he also experimented with various foreshortening effects, and with narrative scenes illustrating local tribal legends. He never used such innovation in work for Māori patrons. He ceased to carve for Europeans about 1912, and after this his work became more stylised and strictly orthodox.
Between 1902 and 1910 Tene was employed sporadically by the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts to produce carvings for the model Māori village being constructed at Whakarewarewa. In 1910 he went to Sydney with Maggie Papakura's concert party to set up a model Māori village at Clontarf and to demonstrate carving to the visitors. When, in 1927, the School of Māori Arts was established at Rotorua to train carvers and other artists, Tene Waitere was often consulted about matters of design and execution.
After the First World War Tene designed war memorials for at least two marae. His last work was the design for a monument for his own daughter, erected at the home of his grand-daughter, Rangitīaria (Guide Rangi) at Whakarewarewa. Three weeks after the unveiling of this monument, on 28 August 1931, Tene died at Rangitīaria's home. He was buried at Ngāti Tarāwhai's Ruatō burial ground. The date of Ruihi Te Ngahue's death has not been found.
According to Rangitīaria, Tene Waitere could not speak English and could neither read nor write. He joined the Ringatū faith while living at Ruatō, and later carved Tiki, the Ringatū church-house at Ōhinemutu. Tene brought up his daughter and two grand-daughters in a strict Ringatū household, observing all the correct tapu restrictions; yet he was also one of the first carvers to take some of the tapu off Māori woodcarving.
Photographs of Tene Waitere show a slight man with a drawn face, and convey the impression of a sensitive, serious personality. He did not play a major leadership role among Ngāti Tarāwhai and may have been separated from tribal concerns by his employment by Europeans, his residence at Whakarewarewa, and the circumstances of his birth. He was, however, the most prominent carver of his time in the Rotorua area. His work was steeped in tradition, and preserved its integrity when faced with the commercial demands of European tourists and collectors.