Piipi Raumati Tiopira, also called Phoebe, was born at Waihou, Hokianga, probably sometime between 1857 and 1862, the youngest of five children of Te Roroa leader Tiopira Kinaki (also known as Tiopira Te Rurunga, Tiopira Rehi and Tiopira Taoho) and his wife, Marara Mahuhu. Her hapu were Ngati Rangi and Te Roroa of Te Roroa, Ngati Pakau and Ngai Tu of Nga Puhi, and Ngati Rongo of Ngati Whatua. A descendant of famous rangatira, she was the great-granddaughter of Te Roroa paramount chief, warrior-poet and seer Taoho, and his warrior cousin Tuohu. Her grandfathers were Te Waenga, tohunga of Hokianga Heads, and Te Rurunga. Her paternal great-uncles were the war leaders Tuwhare and Maratea, the slayer of Hongi Hika.
Nurtured by her whanau and an Anglican faith which she practised daily, she spent most of her childhood at her father's village, Whenuahou, in the Waipoua Valley, south Hokianga. Probably at Pakia Native School she acquired a working knowlege of English, arithmetic, sewing and the institutions and power of the British Empire. Her interpreting skills were put to good use by her father in the 1874 sale to the Crown of some 100,000 acres of Te Roroa land (from which village and burial reserves were excluded) between south Hokianga and Northern Wairoa.
Contrary to her people's wishes, on 10 December 1886 at Waimamaku she married Samuel Thompson Cummins, a Pakeha shipbuilder who later took up farming. The couple settled at Katianui, Waipoua, where they established a kauri-gum store. Later, for business reasons, they lived at Kaihu, Aratapu and Pouto, Northern Wairoa, where their five children were born. Their permanent home, however, was to remain at Waipoua, the heartland of Te Roroa.
Piipi Cummins (also known as Piipi Te Kamana) became adept at evaluating and pricing kauri gum and consumer goods and pack-horsing them between Waipoua and the coastal port of Kawerua, some eight miles away. A fine horsewoman who would continue to ride side-saddle until well into her 80s, on one occasion she was thrown from a bolting horse, and suffered concussion and fractures. Under the ministrations of her cousin, the traditional Maori healer Marama Russell, however, she made a full recovery.
After the death of her father in 1887, Piipi Cummins strove to take his place, even during the lifetime of her brother, Rewiri, his acknowledged successor. In 1890 she unsuccessfully sought payment from the government of the balance of funds due to Te Roroa from the sale of the Maunganui and Waipoua Forest blocks. Her father had been convinced that he had been cheated of £500 by the Crown, and had advised the government that those transactions would not be complete until this was paid. Piipi also became concerned that Pakeha settlement was placing at risk the integrity of the non-Crown reserved Te Roroa burial ground at Manuwhetai, Maunganui Bluff. She called for tribal meetings, at which the decision was made to reinter ancestral remains elsewhere. Many were buried in her land at Pahinui, Waipoua. In 1896 a commemorative obelisk was erected there, forever interdicting the remains from disturbance.
In 1902 caves containing sacred carved chests and remains of her Te Roroa, Ngati Pou and Ngai Tu ancestors were discovered on the non-Crown reserved Kaharau burial ground at Waimamaku. Piipi organised other Te Roroa leaders of Waipoua to request James Carroll, minister of native affairs, to take great care of the treasures entrusted to his mana by the hapu. In 1901 and 1910 she represented her people in claims to customary land before the Native Land Court.
Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century Piipi participated in numerous tribal hui, at which strategies to recover Te Roroa sacred places taken by the Crown were constantly debated. Drawing on her Land Court experience and advice from her cousin, Hone Peti, an assessor, she became the dominant strategist. She lobbied J. G. Coates, MP for Kaipara, in 1928 and the duke of Gloucester in 1935 in an endeavour to resolve Te Roroa grievances.
In 1931 Piipi asked the Native Land Court to investigate the customary title to the Manuwhetai and Whanga-i-ariki cemetery reserves at Maunganui Bluff. This eventually resulted in Judge Frank Acheson's 1939 finding that the reserves should be returned to Te Roroa 'no matter what cost to the Crown this may involve'. In 1934, drawing on findings of Acheson's 1932 inquiry, which attributed the loss of Te Roroa cemetery reserves at Waimamaku to inaccurate Crown plans, she led the tribe in petitioning Parliament for their return or appropriate compensation. In 1935 she was advised by the native minister that as most of the tribe's burial places were now in private ownership, it would be necessary for the tribe to raise funds to purchase its own sacred places. From 1936 until 1946 she took part in an eventually successful campaign by Waipoua Maori to obtain a school; in 1945 she instigated research into the ownership of the Te Roroa reserve, Te Koutu, at Kawerua.
A woman of mana, great determination and forceful character, Piipi Cummins died at Waipoua on 9 August 1952 embittered by ‘Te Pakeha tahae’ (the thieving Pakeha) and the repeated failures of governments to provide redress for her people. Although unsuccessful in recovering Te Roroa treasured burial ground, Piipi kept alive, for future generations, her ancestors' continued haunting cries for justice. She is buried at Pahinui, Waipoua, where her husband, who predeceased her in 1941, also lies. She was survived by three daughters and a son.