Te Kumeroa Ngoingoi Ngawai was born on 29 December 1921 at Tokomaru Bay, East Coast. She was the eldest of five children of Hori Ngawai of Te Whanau-a-Ruataupare of Ngati Porou of Tokomaru Bay, and his wife, Wikitoria Te Karu, of Ngati Koi in the Hauraki region. Known affectionately as Ngoi, she was raised in the Ringatu faith by her relatives Huka Pohaera and Raiha Kamau 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 Maori but she quickly acquired literacy in English and attended Hukarere Maori 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 Maori 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 Pewhairangi, 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 Pewhairangi, 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 Ngawai, 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 Maori performing arts as a member and leader of Te Hokowhitu-a-Tu Concert Party, which was founded by Tuini Ngawai in 1939. During the early 1940s they travelled around New Zealand entertaining and raising funds for the war effort. Ngoi was groomed by Tuini Ngawai 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 Pewhairangi herself composed many songs, such as ‘Kia kaha nga 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 Patea Maori 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 Maori language and tutored the Maori club at Gisborne Girls’ High School. In 1974 she also began tutoring in Gisborne for the University of Waikato’s continuing education certificate in Maori studies, and taught a course in Maori. Her skill in motivating people irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or occupation was quickly recognised within Maori educational circles. When Kara Puketapu was appointed secretary of the Department of Maori Affairs in 1977, Pewhairangi was asked to assist in implementing the Tu Tangata programme, which focused on rescuing alienated urban Maori 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 Pewhairangi was employed as an adviser to the National Council of Adult Education. Her job took her to many places, particularly rural Maori communities. Among other activities, she promoted cottage industry crafts such as pottery and weaving and the learning of Maori language and culture. She developed several programmes specifically for Maori women. Te Ataarangi, co-developed with Katerina Mataira, was a method of learning and teaching the Maori 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 awhina , 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 Maori and Pacific weavers for a week at Pakirikiri marae, Tokomaru Bay. They formed Aotearoa Moana Nui a Kiwa Weavers. She was also a foundation member of the Council for Maori and South Pacific Arts in 1979, alongside people such as Kuru-O-Te-Marama Waaka and Kingi Ihaka, 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 Maori Performing Arts Festival).
Ngoi Pewhairangi 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 Maori language and culture and the development of her ideal of a bicultural nation in which Pakeha would help to ensure the survival of the Maori language.