Pei Te Hurinui Jones was the son of Daniel Lewis, a European storekeeper, and Paretekōrae Poutama of Ngāti Maniapoto. He was born on 9 September 1898 at Harataunga (Kennedys Bay) on the eastern coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. Shortly after Pei's birth, Daniel Lewis left New Zealand and settled in Australia. Pei was adopted in his infancy by his mother's grand-uncle, Te Hurinui Te Wano, and the years spent in this household had a profound effect on him. A sickly child, troubled by dreams that came to be considered portents of death in the tribe, Pei underwent ancient rituals. Besides putting an end to the troublesome dreams, these confirmed a commitment to his traditional Māori heritage. He was present at many tribal gatherings, conferences of elders and functions in many parts of the country.
Paretekorae later married David Jones, a farmer, of Ngāpuhi descent, and the children took their stepfather's surname. Pei's formal schooling had been irregular, although he attended Ōngarue primary school. In 1913 he was enrolled at Wesley College, Three Kings, Auckland. After leaving here he had no further formal education.
In 1920 Pei left his home in the Taumarunui district to work as an interpreter at the Native Department in Whanganui. From 1928 he was in charge of the consolidation of Māori lands in the King Country. At a meeting at Te Kūiti to discuss a rating dispute that had arisen between Ngāti Maniapoto and a local body, Pei Te Hurinui made a considerable impression on Apirana Ngata, who noted with approval that some younger members of Ngāti Maniapoto were prepared to break down the conservatism of the elders. In a letter to Peter Buck he wrote: 'The torch-bearer will I think be Pei Jones – a good man, with plenty of vision, a first-rate Maori scholar, steeped in West Coast folk lore &c. and a very competent master of English…And he has the fire that kindles hearts.'
Ngata's remarks were perceptive, but Pei's principal involvement would be with the King movement. As early as 1922 he had observed Te Puea Hērangi's efforts to improve its fortunes, and for much of the rest of his life his knowledge of both languages and his ability to move freely between Māori and Pākehā cultures was devoted to its service. He became an adviser to Te Puea, to King Korokī, and to Korokī's daughter and successor, Queen Te Atairangikaahu. Following the recommendation of the Sim Native Land Confiscation commission in 1928 that Waikato should be compensated for the confiscation of their lands following the wars of the 1860s, Pei Te Hurinui played a major role in the subsequent negotiations. He helped in the preparation of the Waikato–Maniapoto Claims Settlement Act 1946, and was Korokī's nominee on the Tainui Māori Trust Board.
Pei stood for Parliament as an independent candidate in 1930. Initial assurances of the support of the Rātana movement were not fulfilled when Haami Tokouru Rātana also stood. His intervention split the vote and led to Te Tāite Te Tomo winning the seat. Pei Te Hurinui also stood unsuccessfully in 1938 and 1943, and was defeated by Matiu Rātana in a by-election in 1945. He stood as a New Zealand National Party candidate in 1957, 1960 and 1963.
When Pei's older brother, Michael Rotohiko Jones, was appointed private secretary to the native minister in 1940, Pei took over his business as a licensed interpreter and consultant in Hāwera. In 1945 he moved to Taumarunui and was involved in setting up the Puketapu Incorporation to log and mill timber on a block of 17,620 acres between Taumarunui and Tokaanu. He became the managing secretary. By 1960 it had made profits of £736,000 and returned more than £480,000 to its Māori shareholders. It had also developed a 1,600-acre sheep farm. The sawmills, timber factories and logging rights were sold to the Kauri Timber Company for £1,135,000 in 1960.
While he was still a young man, Pei began recording genealogies and traditional stories of Tainui. Possibly his first publication was a piece in Māori entitled 'Māhinārangi', which appeared in the first issue of Te Wānanga in 1929. It combined an account of the planning and completion of the meeting house Māhinārangi on the marae at Tūrangawaewae with a retelling of the story of the rivalry between the brothers Whatihua and Tūrongo, and the latter's marriage to the East Coast chieftainess Māhinārangi.
Despite his modest education Pei became a prolific writer in Māori and English. His translation of The merchant of Venice was commended by Ngata, and he went on to translate Julius Caesar, Othello and Edward FitzGerald's The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. In the first report of the Tainui Māori Trust Board he recounted in Māori the complicated negotiations between Waikato and the Crown. As secretary of the management committee of the Puketapu Incorporation he published the annual reports and accounts in both Māori and English. All of these were attempts by a native speaker of Māori to express the ideas and concepts of western society adequately in his mother tongue. He contributed many articles to the Journal of the Polynesian Society and Te Ao Hou. His knowledge of the Māori language led to his appointment to a committee to revise H. W. Williams's Māori dictionary and to the New Zealand Geographic Board.
After Ngata's death in 1950 Pei Te Hurinui carried on the editing of the song collection Ngā mōteatea. Ngata had translated just 20 of the 300 songs into English. Pei completed the task of translating and re-editing new editions of all three volumes. In general his translations are less literal than those of Ngata.
Ngā mōteatea was Pei Te Hurinui's most valuable contribution to Māori literature. His most ambitious work in English was King Pōtatau, which should perhaps be regarded as a historical novel rather than a biography. Similar blending of factual research and what must be regarded as fancy is evident in his other English biographical pieces on Māhinārangi and on the poetess Puhiwahine. These contrast with his Māori writing, which adhered closely to the oral traditions.
Pei Te Hurinui's first and main interest was in the recording of Tainui genealogies and traditions. He wrote many booklets issued to commemorate the opening of meeting houses in the Tainui and Ngāti Tūwharetoa areas. Of his approach to informants he said, 'I always took great care to choose a time and place when an elder and I were at rest with the world, and then almost casually ask a brief question to elicit some point of history'.
The culmination of many years of research was a Māori-language version of the history of the Tainui tribes, from the building of the canoe and the crossing to New Zealand until the early years of the nineteenth century. This was published posthumously in 1995 as Ngā iwi o Tainui. Pei had written an English-language version of much of this material by about 1936. He lent the manuscript to Leslie Kelly, who had offered to make a typewritten copy, and was very distressed when Kelly incorporated it in his book Tainui, published in 1949. Pei's researches in Tainui learning were recognised by the award of an honorary doctorate by the University of Waikato in 1968.
Pei Te Hurinui was widely accepted as a Māori leader. He was invited to deliver the oration over the ashes of Peter Buck in 1954. He was the second president of the New Zealand Māori Council, a member of the Maniapoto District Māori Council, served on a number of other Māori boards and committees, and was a member of the Taumarunui Borough Council. He played leading roles at young Māori leaders' conferences in 1939 and 1959 and was made an OBE in 1961.
Pei Te Hurinui's slight, scholarly appearance of later years was misleading. In his youth he had played rugby for the King Country and Whanganui and he was New Zealand Māori men's tennis champion from 1924 to 1928.
He married twice. His first wife was a widow, Hepina Te Miha (formerly Teri), whom he married on 16 October 1943 at Hāwera. They had no offspring of their own but adopted several children of relatives. Hepina died in 1956, and on 6 January 1958 Pei married a divorcee, Kate Huia Apatari (formerly Rangiheuea) at Palmerston North. There were no children of the marriage. He died at Taumarunui on 7 May 1976, survived by his wife and three children of his first marriage. He is buried beside Te Hurinui Te Wano in the cemetery at Te Tokanga-nui-a-noho marae in Te Kūiti.