John Te One Hippolite (registered as Teone Hoani Hippolite) was born at Madsen Bay, D’Urville Island, on 25 August 1929, the eldest of 10 children of Benjamin (Peneamine) Hippolite, a labourer, and his wife, Maria Poto Tuo Elkington. As well as fostering at least two children, they formally adopted two others. John was of Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Kuia descent, but also had links with Ngāti Tama and Ngāi Tahu. He grew up during the depression era, and as his parents frequently moved looking for work he lived in bush camps and with his grandparents, uncles and aunts. This helped John to develop a strong concept of the extended family, and whakapapa became very important to him. His family were devout Mormons.
John Hippolite attended school on D’Urville Island, at Auckland Point School in Nelson, and also at Matapihi in Croisilles Harbour. By the time he was 13 his family had moved from the island to Nelson, where they shared a house with three other families so that he could attend Nelson College. He spent only two years there. His first job on leaving was as a galley boy on the Nelson-to-Wellington ferries. He was used to boats, having often gone fishing with his uncles. He also worked at different times scrub cutting in the French Pass area, shearing with his cousins, and mustering.
In June 1951, a year after the outbreak of the Korean War, Hippolite joined the army and trained as a signalman at Burnham Camp. Posted to Kayforce, he left New Zealand on 2 August and served in Korea as part of No 1 Commonwealth Divisional Signals Regiment. He did not adjust well to military life and committed various offences such as being absent without leave (AWOL) for brief periods, including a nine-hour stint on Anzac Day in 1952. Active service none the less had a profound effect upon him. While in Korea he saw refugees being deprived of rights in their own country, and he drew parallels between their situation and that of Māori in New Zealand. Thus the first stirrings of political activism began.
After the war he got a job as a farm labourer, and married June Noreen Gray in Nelson on 12 October 1953; they raised six children. During the 1950s he worked for New Zealand Railways at Waipara, North Canterbury. He then became a driver and union delegate for Kirbys Carriers in Nelson.
The 1960s and the Vietnam War marked John Hippolite’s emergence as an activist. He was not a pacifist and was proud of his RSA membership, but he marched against the war long before it was popular to do so. At first there were only about six people in Nelson, including himself, who demonstrated. He was later to encounter much hostility, but was prepared for this by an incident he had witnessed years before outside the Majestic Theatre where protesters against compulsory military training had been harassed and physically abused. As Hippolite’s group continued their anti-war marches, vigils and meetings, however, more and more people began to join.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s Hippolite also became increasingly involved in Māori issues. He was a member of the Māori Organisation on Human Rights (MOOHR), and in 1972 was part of a group in Nelson concerned about the high incidence of Māori crime. Its members monitored the activities of the Nelson Magistrate’s Court and wrote a paper the following year entitled ‘Justice and race: a monocultural system in a multicultural society’. Their conclusion was that in order for Māori defendants to have a fair hearing it was necessary to have legal representation. They found that by having this, the court’s Māori imprisonment rate was lowered by a third. Extending that finding to the rest of the country, they argued that a third of Māori prisoners should not be in gaol.
Another of Hippolite’s concerns was conservation. In January 1973 he was appointed to the Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park Board. This interest was later recognised by his appointment to the Māori Heritage Committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1991. He was also involved in two claims to the Waitangi Tribunal: the Takaporewa (Stephens Island) and the Indigenous Flora and Fauna claims, lodged in 1989 and 1991 respectively.
In 1973, with the breakup of his marriage (which ended in divorce in 1976), John Hippolite moved to Waikato, where he worked as a nurse. The eight years he spent there were important in terms of reinforcing his identity as a Māori and ‘black activist’. During that time he joined the 1975 Māori land march, was arrested at the Raglan Golf Course and at Bastion Point, and opposed the 1981 Springbok tour. He was a supporter of the New Zealand Labour Party until the formation of Mana Motuhake o Aotearoa in 1980. He worked closely with the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD), and in the early 1980s he angered the Mormon church when he challenged its attitude to American blacks.
By the end of 1981 Hippolite was back in Nelson. There he joined a group called the Nelson Race Collective, which was part of the local anti-racism coalition, and worked as a cultural adviser for the Department of Social Welfare. Determined to improve the well-being and health of Māori, he reactivated the Nelson Māori committee in 1982, served on the Whakatū marae committee, helped establish a kōhanga reo in Nelson, and was a member of the Standing Committee on Māori Health.
On 27 February 1993, in Richmond, he married Rosemary Gwendolyn Sutherland, a social worker, with whom he had been living for 10 years. Nine months later, on 17 November, he suffered a heart attack and died at a meeting at Whakatū marae, Nelson. He was survived by his wife and children and was buried in an RSA plot at Marsden Valley cemetery.