John (Hoani) Te Rangiāniwaniwa Rangihau, known to his hapū and iwi as Te Nika and in the wider Māori world as Te Rangihau, was born at Kūhā, south of Waikaremoana, on 5 September 1919, to Karu Rangihau, a labourer, and his wife, Waiparani Mateana Rūrehe. He was a descendant of Hinepūkohurangi and his hapū were Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāti Ruapani of Waikaremoana, Ngāi Te Riu of Ruatāhuna, Ngāti Tāwhaki of Rūātoki, and Te Patuheuheu of Waiōhau.
While still a small child he became ill with tuberculosis and was sent briefly to Maungapōhatu in the Urewera country. On his return to Waikaremoana he attended Kōkako Native School (1926–33), then in 1934 he entered Wesley College at Three Kings, Auckland, and remained there until 1936.
After returning home Rangihau had a succession of jobs in the Bay of Plenty. He worked for a timber-milling company and the State Forest Service before joining the Public Works Department where, among other projects, he was employed on the Waikaremoana Hydro Electric Power Scheme. In 1944, during the latter stages of the Second World War, he enlisted with the Royal New Zealand Air Force and served in Delta unit as a trainee aircrewman. In September that year, on his request, he was transferred to the army and served overseas with B Company of the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion, returning home with the battalion after the end of the war.
From 1946 to 1948 Rangihau worked with one of the government’s health centres at Huramua, north-west of Wairoa. In 1949 he met Wenarata Turipa Tait, whom he married soon after at Rūātoki on 29 July; they were to have nine children. That month he began work for the Department of Māori Affairs as a Māori welfare officer, and by the following year had been transferred to Whakatāne. He worked in the Te Arawa and Mātaatua districts and, as a recognised leader of the Tūhoe people, attended hui and conferences throughout the country.
Rangihau had a reflective, inquiring mind, and during this period he pondered the conditions of Māori, the best remedies to pursue, and how to present these issues in a way that would be acceptable to Māori. As a result, he, his family and his people decided he should attempt to gain an academic qualification. With his family he moved from Whakatāne to Wellington in 1957, and with the aid of a research grant studied successfully for the diploma in social science at Victoria University of Wellington.
After graduating in early 1959 Rangihau returned to the Department of Māori Affairs and opened a branch of the department at Taupō. At the end of that year, once its affairs were proceeding smoothly, he moved to Rotorua as district Māori welfare officer. In this position he was involved with many matters concerning Tūhoe, including the settlement with the government of issues concerning Lake Waikaremoana, the non-completion of the road from Rūātoki to Ruatāhuna, and progress on tasks undertaken by the Tūhoe Māori Trust Board. He became Tūhoe’s main spokesman when Tuiringa Tawera relinquished the role, and their acting trustee. He also conducted schools of learning in Māori culture and history for Tūhoe students and young people. The result was the setting up in 1971 of regular meetings, known as Hui Ahurei a Tūhoe, which were continuing well into the 1990s.
Alongside this work, Rangihau was involved with the Ringatū church, attended many government meetings and travelled widely. In South Africa he met and debated issues with its indigenous peoples and government officials, and with the president of Tanzania. In Australia he addressed a convention organised by the Society of Friends on developments within the Māori world. He was also active on behalf of the people of Tokelau when the government was attempting to improve their health and welfare. In 1966 he escorted a group of Tokelauan immigrants to Auckland, and helped them settle into New Zealand. He also lectured at and visited some of the foremost universities in the world, including Oxford University in England.
In 1973 Rangihau moved to Hamilton to work for the University of Waikato’s Centre for Māori Studies and Research. While there he revised the Ringatū church’s prayer book and thoroughly researched the history of Te Kooti, his songs and prophetic sayings. Most of Rangihau’s writing on the Māori language also derived from this time, and he was constantly seeking ways to preserve the language. The first Māori-language preschool groups were set up in 1974 and were based on the kindergarten. Although they were a beginning, Māori was not spoken all the time and the course lasted only a year. Rangihau was involved in the ministerial committee that investigated the establishment of a new and more effective scheme to stop the decline in the numbers of Māori-speaking people in New Zealand. In April 1982 the kōhanga reo (language nest) programme began at the Pukeatua Kōkiri Centre in Wainuiomata. His vision of the nurture of Māori babies in their language and culture from birth to the age of five had come to pass.
When Kara Puketapu was secretary for Māori Affairs he asked Rangihau to return to the department. In 1982, when his work at the Māori studies centre was completed, Rangihau became a senior consultant to the department. Here his interest in youth was directed into other areas of his work. He had taken part in discussions with Children’s Court judges when the 1974 Children and Young Persons Act was being formulated. He had also begun encouraging Māori elders to seek out their children and grandchildren in prison and to persuade them to return home once released. As a result, elders for prisons were appointed. In June 1985 he became a member of the Parole Board.
Rangihau’s influence on the Department of Social Welfare was especially felt through his chairmanship of the Māori perspective advisory committee. Established in July 1985, its purpose was to advise on the most appropriate means to achieve a bicultural approach to policy, planning and service delivery within the department, and thus improve the department’s image among Māori. The committee travelled around the country listening to the people’s needs, and in July 1986 released a report, Pūao-te-ata-tū. In it the committee argued that institutionalised racism existed in the department, as it did throughout New Zealand’s institutional structures, and that the nation was facing a major social crisis. At a New Zealand National Party conference the following month, when Rangihau explained that he was not looking for compensation or feelings of guilt but rather a fair share of resources, he received a standing ovation. His intellectual contribution to social policy was acknowledged in 1989 when a teaching and research position at Victoria University of Wellington, funded by the Department of Social Welfare, was established in his honour.
Rangihau’s ability to promote understanding between Māori and Pākehā, and to incorporate Māori values into modern life, was felt in various government departments. Earlier he had guided doctors of the Department of Health, who were researching Māori health. According to Dr Ian Prior, without Rangihau it would have been impossible to work with the right people. He served on the Department of Education’s national advisory committees on Māori and bilingual education, and was a key adviser to the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography within the Department of Internal Affairs. From the mid 1980s he also attended conferences of indigenous peoples which were beginning to take place around the world.
John Rangihau made a lasting contribution to the cultural and spiritual renaissance of the Māori people. He was a great orator, and his skills in the haka, either as a performer, composer or critic, were highly respected. He was very quietly spoken, but his wisdom and integrity combined to make him an impressive individual who had a spellbinding effect on those in his presence. In 1975 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to Māori. Predeceased by his wife in 1976, he died in Rotorua on 14 October 1987, survived by his children. He was buried at Ngongotahā.