Te Kumeroa Ngoingoi Ngāwai was born on 29 December 1921 at Tokomaru Bay, East Coast. She was the eldest of five children of Hōri Ngāwai of Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare of Ngāti Porou of Tokomaru Bay, and his wife, Wikitōria Te Karu, of Ngāti Koi in the Hauraki region. Known affectionately as Ngoi, she was raised in the Ringatū faith by her relatives Huka Pōhaera and Raiha Kāmau at Waiparapara. Her father, who worked as a labourer, was a minister of this church and an advocate of the Kotahitanga movement, which Ngoi herself later supported.
Ngoi attended Tokomaru Bay Native School. Her first language was Māori but she quickly acquired literacy in English and attended Hukarere Māori Girls’ School in Napier from 1938 to 1941. An able hockey player, after she left school she played for the Marotiri team at Tokomaru Bay and competed in tournaments around the North Island. These competitions combined sport with kapa haka (the Māori performing arts). Ngoi was in her element in this context.
She returned to Tokomaru Bay after completing her education and worked in her aunt’s shearing gang. Through this work she met Rikirangi Ben Pēwhairangi, a labourer, also of Tokomaru Bay. They were married by Ngoi’s father at Waiparapara marae on 3 February 1945. They had one son, Terewai Pēwhairangi, but raised many other children, including their own grandchild.
The couple continued to work in shearing gangs up and down the East Coast in their early married lives. In the sheds Ngoi was known for her mischievous nature and her singing. On one occasion, when her aunt, Tuini Ngāwai, was competing in a competition, seeing her lagging behind Ngoi spontaneously burst into song to inspire her to pick up the pace.
She continued her interest in Māori performing arts as a member and leader of Te Hokowhitu-a-Tū Concert Party, which was founded by Tuini Ngāwai in 1939. During the early 1940s they travelled around New Zealand entertaining and raising funds for the war effort. Ngoi was groomed by Tuini Ngāwai in performance, composition and leadership, and she tutored and led the group on many occasions. Later, she compiled the book Tuini: her life and her songs (1985).
Ngoi Pēwhairangi herself composed many songs, such as ‘Kia kaha ngā iwi’, ‘Ka noho au’ and ‘Whakarongo’. Many were written for specific events, including the visit of the prince and princess of Wales in 1983, when she was responsible for the organisation of the official welcome. She was renowned for her spontaneity in writing compositions for various people. Of these songs, ‘E ipo’, recorded by Prince Tui Teka, and ‘Poi e’, by Dalvanius Prime and the Pātea Māori Club, are best known. They earned gold and platinum records for selling, respectively, 7,500 and 15,000 copies.
For three years from 1973 Ngoi taught Māori language and tutored the Māori club at Gisborne Girls’ High School. In 1974 she also began tutoring in Gisborne for the University of Waikato’s continuing education certificate in Māori studies, and taught a course in Māori. Her skill in motivating people irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or occupation was quickly recognised within Māori educational circles. When Kara Puketapu was appointed secretary of the Department of Māori Affairs in 1977, Pēwhairangi was asked to assist in implementing the Tū Tangata programme, which focused on rescuing alienated urban Māori youth and connecting them to their iwi. She subsequently acted as an adviser to the department, assisting the development of the ‘Tangata Whenua’ television series with Michael King. He later included a commentary written by Ngoi as part of the foreword to the book Te ao hurihuri. Kara Puketapu also consulted her in the preliminary discussions which led to the emergence of the first kohanga reo in Wellington.
In 1978 Pēwhairangi was employed as an adviser to the National Council of Adult Education. Her job took her to many places, particularly rural Māori communities. Among other activities, she promoted cottage industry crafts such as pottery and weaving and the learning of Māori language and culture. She developed several programmes specifically for Māori women. Te Ataarangi, co-developed with Kāterina Mataira, was a method of learning and teaching the Māori language using Cuisenaire rods. It was the basis of a television programme and a series of books, Te reo (1985). She also published her own teachers’ manual, He paku āwhina, in 1984.
Te Ataarangi became so successful that its practitioners formed a national association at a hui convened by Ngoi in 1981. In 1983 she convened another hui which brought together skilled Māori and Pacific weavers for a week at Pākirikiri marae, Tokomaru Bay. They formed Aotearoa Moana Nui a Kiwa Weavers. She was also a foundation member of the Council for Māori and South Pacific Arts in 1979, alongside people such as Kuru-O-Te-Marama Waaka and Kīngi Īhaka, serving until her death in 1985. Considered an expert at adjudicating kapa haka competitions, she was frequently called upon to judge both in New Zealand and Australia and at festivals such as the Tamararo cultural competition, held annually in Gisborne, and the New Zealand Polynesian Festival (later the Aotearoa Māori Performing Arts Festival).
Ngoi Pēwhairangi died on 29 January 1985, in her home at Tokomaru Bay, after a long illness, survived by her husband and son. She had been revered for her unrelenting work for the advancement of the Māori language and culture and the development of her ideal of a bicultural nation in which Pākehā would help to ensure the survival of the Māori language.