George Gage, or Hōri Te Kou-o-rehua Keeti as he was known to Māori, was born probably in 1895 or 1896 at Kihikihi, Waikato. His father, John Gage (Hōne Keeti), was of Ngāti Maniapoto. His mother, Rea Waitāuhi Nikorima of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Te Whakatōhea of the eastern Bay of Plenty, was a tapu woman of rank. She and her sisters Ngārori and Mōkeke were the matriarchal figures of the prominent Gage, Delamere and Black families respectively. Like many of her kinsfolk, Waitāuhi knew Te Kooti, and she held office in the Ringatū church, sharing with others responsibility for discipline, organisation and ministering to the sick. To her people she was a tohunga, and she had an important bearing on the life of her son George.
George Gage grew up in Kāwhia, one of at least seven children. When John Gage died, Waitāuhi returned to her people of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui. To assuage the kin group’s loss of her husband, she left George with his father’s people to be brought up by Te Kou-o-rehua, after whom he was named.
It appears that George received little or no elementary schooling, and as he lived in a predominantly Māori environment he spoke imperfect English. Family tradition has it that in Kāwhia he gained a knowledge of herbal cures that was to stand him in good stead for the rest of his life. After Te Kou-o-rehua died, his mother had him brought home. Here she continued his education in healing matters and inducted him into the practices of the Ringatū church; he succeeded her as tohunga tākuta (healer) of the church.
Clearing land for farming was one of the principal occupations at this time, and Gage began bushfelling in the Ōmarumutu district east of Ōpōtiki. Here he met and, by 1914, married Katerina Punua Te Whakatātare of the Ngāti Ruatakenga hapū of Te Whakatōhea. Katerina’s main line of descent was from the chief Tūtāmure, down to and including Ūpokohapa, Kāwhata and Whakatātare. George and Katerina were to have two daughters and a son. They established their first home at Kauae, later moving to Pūriritahi at Ōtūwhare near Ōmāio, where Gage began farming. Katerina died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Eighteen years later, on 29 July 1936, in Ōtūwhare, Gage married a widow, Harihari Rauwharangi of Ngāi Te Rangi; they had two sons.
Gage gradually built up a reputation as a priest who had the power of prescience, as well as the power to heal. He was first formally registered as a Ringatū minister, under the name Hōri Keeti, in 1942 and held the position until his death. He established his practice at Ōmāio, and was particularly successful in dealing with mate Māori – illnesses that resulted from cultural and spiritual rather than physical causes. He co-operated with doctors: Dr Golan Maaka, a Māori who practised in Whakatāne, sometimes sent patients to see him. For those who suffered but could not attend in person it was sufficient to talk with Gage by telephone. Such was the case of a patient from Ngāpuhi who rang him saying that he was being plagued at night by the sound of a walking-stick thudding through his house. However, in this case Gage advised the patient to consult his own minister who could recite the appropriate prayers for the situation. Gage's advice was in total contrast to the attitude of a local clergyman, who on hearing that members of his congregation were consulting Gage, proclaimed in a sermon that tohunga were the equivalent of witch doctors.
Gage never took payment for his services, but his people saw to it that he lacked nothing. The Tangaere family of Ngāti Porou in particular saw to his needs. The most Gage would accept was a bottle of olive oil, which he used a great deal in his treatments, or a flask of sea water, which he used in place of fresh water to bless his patients and remove tapu. As a tohunga he gave advice to women wanting to become pregnant, and made decisions about objects associated with the recently dead: generally they were to be buried with the deceased, or at least not used by living descendants. When his rules were obeyed, his patients did well. On a number of occasions when his rules were flouted, his patients suffered calamity; their children died as he had predicted or other disasters occurred.
Gage also acquired a reputation for having the power of spontaneous healing. On one occasion a crippled child was seen to be carried into the meeting house where Gage was holding prayers; he blessed the child, who then walked out unaided. Gage was the tohunga who decided that the thistle painted in the house Rongopai, built in 1887 to receive Te Kooti in Gisborne, should be painted over; it had come to be regarded as an omen of disaster.
Harihari Gage died in 1955 and in Ruatoria on 11 August 1956 George married Agnes Georgina Winkelmann of Ngāti Porou. They would have three sons and a daughter. By 1956 Gage was at the height of his powers and people were beginning to regard him as a spiritual successor to Te Kooti and Rua Kēnana. That year, on 8 October, the anniversary of the coronation of King Korokī, Gage spoke on the Tūrangawaewae marae. By then he had established himself at Tātaiāhape, south-west of Ōpōtiki. For some time he led there a separate section within the Ringatū church known as Rangimārie (peace). Tame Te Maro, the East Coast leader and secretary of the Kotahitanga of the Treaty of Waitangi movement, which aimed at uniting Māori under God and the Māori kingship, came to Tātaiāhape, and for a while the two movements merged.
Gage continued to work as a healer and his following grew. People visiting the settlement were blessed with sea water, and women patients were massaged with olive oil by a number of ‘nurses’. He blew on his patients through a handkerchief, a symbolic action to remove pain. Some who visited him at this time felt a kind of shock, like a strong force flowing from or through him. A few even regarded him as the next embodiment of the Messiah.
Gage’s movement eventually became divided, and he returned to Ōtūwhare, where he continued to be consulted and respected. He died in Ōpōtiki on 3 June 1961, survived by his wife and children of three marriages. He is buried at Ōmāio.