Te Rangiātaahua Kiniwē Royal (Roera) was born on 23 August 1896 at Muhunoa, Ōhau, in Horowhenua, the seventh of ten children of Te Kiniwē Roera Te Ahukaramū and Kēriata Hūnia Te Weu Tukukino. Rangi, as he was known, was named after Te Rangiātaahua, an ancestor of his Ngāti Raukawa hapū, Ngāti Kikopiri. On his father’s side he could claim descent from Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Huia, and was a great-grandson of Hūkiki Te Ahukaramū, one of the leaders of Ngāti Raukawa’s migrations. His mother’s family had links with Ngāti Tamaterā and Ngāti Maru of Hauraki. His great-grandfather was Tukukino Te Ahiatāewa of Ngāti Tamaterā. Rangi also had close links with Te Whatanui of Ngāti Raukawa, Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toa and Tāraia Ngākuti Te Tumuhuia of Ngāti Tamaterā.
Rangi Royal spent his early years at Muhunoa and Ōtaki and was educated at Ōtaki School. Later the family moved to Kōmata, near Paeroa, and he continued his schooling at Thames High School and Paeroa District High School. In 1912 he became the country’s first Māori scoutmaster. On leaving school in 1916 he joined the Native Department. He enlisted in the army in 1917, and after a year in New Zealand served in France for eight months. He was discharged in 1919 with the rank of corporal.
In 1920 Royal attended a hui at Rotorua to mark the visit to New Zealand of the prince of Wales. There he met Irihapeti (Elizabeth) Te Puhi-o-Rākaiora Taiaroa (known as Puhi), a daughter of Hōri Kerei Taiaroa and Makereti Parata of Ngāi Tahu. They were married at Ōhinemutu on 3 August 1921. The marriage was one of a number which, over a long period, cemented peace between Ngāi Tahu and those northern tribes that had made war upon them in the 1820s and 1830s.
Rangi Royal was an outstanding sportsman. He played rugby for the Māori (Pioneer) Battalion team in France and England at the end of the First World War, and before that was an Auckland representative. He later organised the first Māori cricket team to play in first-class matches and was a Rotorua and South Auckland representative. He also represented the district in rowing. Royal went on to become a member of the Māori Advisory Board of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union and was on the national executives of the Māori hockey, tennis and golf associations. He was a vice president of the Ōtaki-Māori Racing Club and chairman of its judicial committee.
During the 1920s Rangi Royal took over the role of attending to family land issues from his uncle, Kerehi Roera Te Ahukaramū, handling their land interests at Muhunoa and at Kōmata. About 1931 he was stationed at Rūātoki, where he worked as a supervisor for the Native Department, responsible for the district from Whakatāne to Cape Runaway. He worked closely with Apirana Ngata in unravelling and consolidating titles to ancestral lands and assisted greatly with their development. On his return, in 1935, to the Native Department in Rotorua, Royal worked as a clerk with the Native Land Court and Waiariki District Māori Land Board. He also acted as consolidation officer, and farm officer and interpreter.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Royal re-enlisted in the army and entered the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion as captain. He was made a commander of B Company and was heavily involved in the recruitment of the battalion. Royal helped Sergeant Major Frank Rennie, a Pākehā who spoke no Māori, to instil discipline and organise training. Royal served in Greece, Crete and Libya, and was awarded the Military Cross for leading a bayonet charge against German paratroopers at Suda Bay, Crete, in May 1941. He later fought an important rearguard action to protect the withdrawal of his troops. A bar was added following his deeds at Gazala during the Libyan campaign in late 1941. Royal was wounded at Gazala and spent some weeks in hospital. On his discharge in February 1942 he returned to New Zealand to train soldiers for a second Māori Battalion which, however, was never established. He then returned to the Native Department in Rotorua.
After the war, an administrative reorganisation saw the Māori War Effort Organisation absorbed into the Native Department and more attention given to Māori welfare and housing. In 1944 Royal was appointed chief welfare officer and in 1946 controller of Māori welfare, based in Wellington. In 1944 he wrote a report on the poor housing conditions of Māori living in Auckland. This report revealed the seriousness of the situation and offered him a firsthand look at the changing circumstances of Māori.
Royal’s inclusion in the senior ranks of the Native Department, along with Tipi Rōpiha, its under-secretary, signalled a change in the style of the department, which had hitherto excluded Māori from senior positions. As controller of Māori welfare, Royal became heavily involved in many Māori development initiatives. He played a significant role in the development and implementation of the Māori Social and Economic Advancement Act 1945, and was influential in pursuing tribal self-determination through the establishment of some 500 tribal committees formed to consider issues relating to education, health and employment. Following the election of the National government in 1949, Māori welfare officers were brought under the control of the Pākehā district officers of the department. Royal considered that he was being reduced to a figurehead. He travelled the country speaking on health and welfare issues. In 1955 he travelled for three months to speak on marae about the effects of alcohol consumption and to raise debate about its effect on Māori people.
Rangi Royal laid much of the organisational groundwork that led to the establishment of the Māori Women’s Welfare League in 1951. He recognised the value of the organisation in meeting the needs of Māori women and threw the full weight of his office behind it. Many members of his family held office in the league. In 1955 his wife, Puhi, was elected as one of two vice presidents and his sister, Naki Swainson, was a member of the first executive. His first cousin, Ruiha Sage, was elected president in 1964.
Royal’s considerable knowledge of the Māori language was recognised when he was invited to join the committee to revise and edit H. W. Williams’s Dictionary of the Māori language. He also made contributions to Nga moteatea, the monumental collection of classical Māori waiata compiled by Apirana Ngata.
Like Ngata, Royal developed a style of working through personal influence, and keeping in close contact with the traditional elements in Māori society. He retired from official positions in 1956 and in 1964 was appointed an OBE for his services to the Māori people. He died at Rotorua on 8 July 1965 and was buried at Muruika Soldiers’ Cemetery, Ōhinemutu. He was survived by his wife and five children: three daughters and two sons.