Rangi Hauiti Pōkiha was born at Koriniti on the Whanganui River on 4 August 1895, the first child of Pōkiha Peni of Ngāti Pāmoana and his second wife, Ngārongo Rangitahua of Ngā Rauru. Rangi Pōkiha was a direct descendant of Turi, captain of the Aotea canoe. He was blessed soon after his birth in a special ceremony by the Ringatū tohunga Te Ture Poutama. The second of Pōkiha Peni’s sons, he was chosen by the elders to carry the tribal knowledge and raised by his maternal grandfather, Rōpata Rangitahua. As a child he learned ancient waiata, genealogy and other tribal lore under the tutelage of Tāmati Tehua Kātene and Paama Tinirau. He was also educated at the Pāmoana Native School, Hikurangi College and Te Aute College, where he excelled in rugby and tennis. On leaving school he worked briefly as a solicitor’s clerk in Wanganui.
Rangi Pōkiha married Kaewa Metekīngi by Māori custom on 1 August 1913 and formally at Wanganui on 12 May 1924. Initially the couple farmed on family land at Kai Iwi. They had one son and adopted another boy and a girl. With the onset of the First World War in 1914 Pōkiha wanted to enlist, but family responsibilities precluded his doing so until 1917, when he joined the 26th Māori Reinforcements of the New Zealand (Māori) Pioneer Battalion; he served in France and Belgium. Although he became a lance corporal he ended the war returned to ranks, apparently as a consequence of a drinking escapade.
Returning to New Zealand in 1919, Pōkiha lived off the land at Koriniti. He got a temporary job with a road gang and later worked as an assistant surveyor for the Public Works Department. He helped to build the Waiōuru Military Camp during the Second World War and was involved in reconstruction operations following the Tangiwai railway disaster in 1953.
Pōkiha’s war time experiences helped him to develop a network of fellow Māori soldiers from all over New Zealand, which he called upon in his later activities. He was a foundation member of the West Coast branch of the Young Māori Party in 1927, and in 1936 was appointed to the Whanganui Māori Council, a position he held until it was reconstituted in 1945. A man of deep spiritual conviction and an Anglican church warden at Koriniti, he had his unwanted gift of prophecy (matakite) removed by kaumātua through ritual purification in the Whanganui River.
Pōkiha was a slight figure of immaculate dress and erect carriage; he was famed as an orator in both Māori and English and acclaimed for his poetic use of both languages. He was highly regarded by kaumātua of Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and the South Island for his understanding of tikanga (custom) and his willingness to share this knowledge with others, especially young people. Pōkiha was invited to give lectures at Victoria and Massey universities and Wellington Teachers’ College, where he also helped develop a Māori studies programme. He chaired the local school committee in the early 1960s, and during the 1970s hosted groups from the Youth Aid Section of the New Zealand Police when they held courses at Koriniti marae.
Pōkiha was a foundation member of the Whanganui Māori Ethnological Society and an inaugural vice president of the Whanganui Historical Society in 1969, becoming a life member six years later. He assisted M. J. G. Smart and A. P. Bates with The Wanganui story (1972), and provided much of the material for Roger Hardie’s Ngāti Pāmoana, Koriniti, Whanganui River (1975). He made recordings of traditional waiata and his own compositions, which are held at Radio New Zealand and Victoria University.
He continued to play rugby in advanced age and was known for his agility on the field. Rangi Pōkiha died at Wanganui on 8 February 1980, survived by his adopted children. After his death he was farewelled at Koriniti, where he is buried beside his wife, Kaewa, who had died in 1958.