Kīngi Matutaera Īhaka was born at Te Kao, Northland, on 18 October 1921. His great-grandfather, Parāone Ngāruhe, signed the Treaty of Waitangi on behalf of Te Aupōuri. Kīngi was the 13th of 14 children of Eru Tīmoko Īhaka of Te Riumākutu hapū of Te Aupōuri, a farmer, and his wife, Te Paea Nēpia of Te Rarawa, also known as Te Haumutunga Reewe Hinks. Te Paea spoke no English and had received no formal education, yet she managed the family budget so well that, despite hard times, seven of her children received secondary education. Kīngi’s father had attended St Stephen’s School in Parnell, Auckland, was a prominent Anglican, a qualified interpreter, and a friend of Apirana Ngata. Kīngi Matutaera was so named to commemorate a visit by Te Puea Hērangi to Te Kao to exhume a Tainui child of the same name for reinterment at Taupiri. In later life his name contributed to his close association with the people of Waikato. He was familiarly known as Matu.
Kīngi attended Te Kao Native School, where he was a good scholar, and his teacher, Archibald Hume Watt (‘Te Wati’), encouraged the use of Māori, although he gained most of his Māori lore from his father and family elders. Family prayers and hymn singing played an important role in Kīngi’s domestic life and training. Sickly as a young child, at the age of seven he suffered a serious illness. When he became delirious and unable to take food his father took him to the local tohunga, Matiu Tupuni. The tohunga brought Kīngi back a day or so later, cured. In later life Kīngi recalled that as a child he saw few Pākehā other than his teacher, the doctor and the district health nurse.
In 1936 Kīngi and his elder brother Toro left Te Kao together to attend St Stephen’s School, south of Auckland. Despite continuing poor health, Kīngi was a good student, liking music and books. His closest school friend, Eddie Malietoa, later head of state of Western Samoa, was the school boxing champion, and Kīngi acted as his second.
On leaving school Kīngi Īhaka joined the Native Department, working as a clerk in Auckland and Te Kao from 1939 to 1942. During this period he became a member of Te Ākarana Māori Association, worked for the Tokerau Māori Land Board and was a sergeant in the Te Kao home guard. In 1943 he was transferred to Gisborne. There he met Manutūkē Sadlier of Te Whānau-a-Te Uruahi hapū of Ngāti Porou. They married on 22 September 1945 in Tīnātoka meeting house, Whakawhitirā, East Coast. They were to have three sons and fostered a daughter.
In 1945 Īhaka passed the examination for his first-class interpreter’s licence, but after two further years of public service entered St John’s College, Auckland, in 1947 to train for the Anglican ministry. In 1949 he was ordained deacon, and appointed curate of St Matthew’s Church in Masterton. While serving there he was appointed to the board of the local YMCA. He was ordained priest in Rangiātea, the Anglican Māori church at Ōtaki, and retained his post as curate at St Matthew’s until 1952, also serving as pastor of the Wairarapa Anglican Māori Pastorate.
He served in the Whanganui – Rangitīkei North Māori Pastorate from 1952 to 1958, working from St Paul’s Anglican Memorial Church, Pūtiki, from 1952. His roles expanded into the pattern typical of his later years – involvement in every worthy community cause he could fit into his busy life. He was a founder member of the Pūtiki Māori Club. In 1955 he was elected a member of the Dominion Executive of the New Zealand Red Cross Society, a post he held for many years. He served as a board member of the Whanganui Public Museum, and as a member of the Whanganui Jaycees, the local tribal executive, the Aotea District Māori Council and the Pūtiki Tribal Committee. His collection of Māori proverbs and popular sayings was published in Te Ao Hou. His transfer from Whanganui to the Wellington Māori Pastorate in 1958 was deeply regretted by his parishioners; a farewell song was composed for him by Waiharakeke Waitere of Ngāti Apa.
Īhaka again combined his ministry with a variety of other activities. In 1961 he was appointed a technical adviser for, and acted in, the film version of Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s Spinster. The same year he began broadcasting on the ‘Māoritanga’ programme on national radio, and was appointed a tutor for adult education classes at Ngāti Pōneke Māori Club. He was president of the Wellington Anglican Māori Club from 1964 and probably became most well known for his compositions and direction of Māori cultural groups at competitions. Although his groups were famous and often won prestigious awards, he disliked the competitiveness associated with Polynesian festivals. However, he realised that competition was a useful platform for the encouragement of higher standards in haka, waiata, poi, pātere and composition. In 1965 his club made a record called Utaina, featuring some of his own compositions, and its cultural group made an international tour, which he managed. He was becoming well known for his oratory, and was a speaker at the opening of the house, Arohanui ki te Tangata at Waiwhetū, in 1960 and in 1966 was a speaker at King Korokī’s tangihanga at Ngāruawāhia. That year he was appointed a member of the central advisory committee of the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, and the following year was a member of the Wellington Māori Arts Festival Committee.
In 1967 Īhaka was transferred to Auckland as Auckland Māori missioner. That year he attended the coronation of the King of Tonga as a representative of Anglican Māori. He was elected a member of the Auckland Standing Committee of the Diocese of Auckland and of the Komiti Tumuaki of the Auckland diocese; was appointed to the Paki Tīpene memorial scholarship board; and in 1968 was elected a member of the Auckland Festival Society. His other interests continued unabated: he was a member of the Lions Club of Auckland, and from 1969 of the Tourist Development Council. In 1970 he was appointed a justice of the peace and made an MBE. In 1971 he was appointed a member of a working party on Māori culture, and in 1971–72 he was chairman of the New Zealand Polynesian Festival Committee. He resigned amid controversy in 1972; his views on many issues were regarded by some urban Māori leaders as assimilationist. He was re-elected to the festival committee in 1975.
Īhaka’s wife, Manutūkē, died of cancer in 1972. She had been his inspiration, and was an expert in Māori lore and culture. Īhaka continued as Anglican Māori missioner until 1976, when he became director of Māori work in the diocese of Auckland, a position he retained until 1984. During the same period he was made archdeacon of Tai Tokerau, and from 1981 to 1984 he was vicar general of the bishopric of Aotearoa. He also served as chairman of the Aotearoa Māori Performing Arts Festival and of the Council for Māori and South Pacific Arts.
From 1984 to 1987 Archdeacon Īhaka served as the first resident Māori minister in Sydney. He was to be a chaplain to all Māori in Sydney – not just to Anglicans. During his first few months he studied the needs of the relatively young Māori community, many of whom had little contact with their language and culture. Īhaka set up and chaired an organisation for their religious, social and cultural needs called the Sydney Māori Arohanui Fellowship.
Kīngi Īhaka returned to New Zealand in 1987, by now officially retired from the Anglican ministry, but his religious and cultural activities increased rather than diminished. He was a member of the Anglican church’s General Synod and of the council of the bishopric of Aotearoa. In 1989 he contributed to a conference which established the principle of a Māori and Pākehā partnership in the Anglican church. He became a cultural adviser to the project set up to establish the Museum of New Zealand, continuing as a member of the museum’s Project Development Board from 1988 to 1992. He was knighted in 1989 for his services to the Māori people.
In October 1990 Īhaka became the second Māori language commissioner. In 1991, he defended the right of the New Zealand women’s rugby team to perform a haka at Cardiff, saying that Ngāti Porou and Waikato women had done so for many years.
Over the next two years Kīngi Īhaka’s health began to deteriorate. He was hospitalised several times after cardiac problems, and failed to rest sufficiently after each episode, frequently working late. He was cared for by his daughter-in-law. He died on 1 January 1993, aged 71, and was buried at Pūrewa cemetery, Auckland. He was survived by two sons, a daughter and seven grandchildren.
Kīngi Īhaka was a superb administrator who had learned his craft well in the Native Department. He was a careful man, and in his many roles in the Anglican church he sought to manage change, introducing it slowly to avoid disruption, whether it was new liturgy, constitutional developments in the governance of the church, or the growth and nurture of new forms of ordained ministry. Kīngi Īhaka avoided extreme positions on issues, which helped to make him accessible to Pākehā as well as Māori. He had a deep, sonorous voice, and could pitch any note accurately; as a trainer of choirs and culture groups he was without peer. Often irascible – he did not hesitate to scold those he considered wayward – Kīngi Īhaka was loyal and true.