Hepi Hoani Te Heuheu Tūkino was the seventh paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, part of a line that traced its ancestry to the tohunga of Te Arawa canoe, Ngātoroirangi. His grandfather, Tūreiti Te Heuheu Tūkino V, had pressed unsuccessfully for recognition of Te Kotahitanga (the Māori parliament) at the end of the nineteenth century. On his death in 1921 he was succeeded by his son, Hoani, who was the first chairman of the Tūwharetoa Trust Board, and sought to assert the legal supremacy of the Treaty of Waitangi at the Privy Council in London in 1940.
Hepi was born on 26 January 1919 at Tongariro House in Lyall Bay, Wellington, the son of Hoani and his wife, Raukawa Tawhirau Maniapoto, the daughter of Te Maniapoto and Wakahuia of Taupō. His principal hapū was Ngāti Tūrumakina. Educated at St Joseph’s Convent at Waihī, near Tokaanu, in early adulthood he worked on the tribe’s farms and forests. On 27 January 1941, at Tokaanu, Hepi (then a truck driver) married Pauline Hinepoto (Tuutu) Te Moanapāpaku, the daughter of Rangihīroa and Horina Te Moanapapaku. Of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maru descent, she was to play an important supporting role to her husband throughout his life. The couple were to have six children.
After his father’s death on 27 April 1944 and tangihanga at Waihī in early May, Hepi was installed in office in a ceremony performed by King Korokī. Later that year, in his first act of leadership, he was among those who refused to attend a conference organised by Māori MPs in Wellington, instead attending a gathering of 3,000 Māori leaders and representatives at Ngāruawāhia. His early years in office were devoted to consolidation and enhancement of the tribal economic base through the development of farms and forests. In 1956 Te Heuheu became chairman of the Tūwharetoa Trust Board, a position he was to hold until his death.
His successful leadership resulted in the tribe becoming one of the strongest and most independent in New Zealand. It was largely achieved through the use of timber incorporations, which enabled Māori owners not only to gain full value from their timber, but also to invest the profits in buildings and other sources of income. Te Heuheu surrounded himself with skilful advisers, including Pei Te Hurinui Jones, who played a key role in establishing successful incorporations in the central North Island from the late 1940s. In the 1960s Te Heuheu was involved in negotiations with the government over the proposed Tūrangi township and Tongariro hydroelectric station, as well as discussions over forestry lands and lake reserves.
In addition to his role as head of the Tūwharetoa Trust Board, Te Heuheu chaired the Lake Rotoaira, Rotoaira Forest, Tauranga–Taupō, Motutere Point and Lake Taupō Forest trusts, the Tūrumakina Tribal Committee and the Aotea District Land Advisory Committee. Wider duties included membership of the St John Ambulance Association, the Tongariro National Park Board and the Waitangi National Trust Board, on which he represented the Māori Queen. He was knighted (KBE) in the 1979 New Year’s honours list. In his spare time he was a keen trout fisherman.
On political matters Te Heuheu followed the family tradition of holding steadfastly to Māori autonomy and independence from government. In 1985–86 he was instrumental in forming the Federation of Māori Authorities, an organisation devoted to improving the management and productivity of Māori land, and served as its first chairman. Te Heuheu’s leadership of a delegation to Prime Minister David Lange in 1985 seeking protection of Māori interests in the state-owned enterprises legislation was arguably the most influential intervention of his career. The insertion in the legislation of provisions protecting the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi opened the way for a historic judicial intervention on this issue by the Court of Appeal of New Zealand in 1987.
In 1989, in response to increasing calls from the tribes to establish an autonomous Māori organisation to represent their interests at the national level, Te Heuheu convened a hui at Lake Taupō. He invited two women to sit beside him – Queen Te Atairangikaahu and Te Reo Hura, tumuaki (president) of the Rātana faith – who subsequently convened a second and third hui to form the National Māori Congress. Initially all the major tribes of New Zealand affiliated to the congress and subscribed to its philosophy of Māori self-determination. Under Te Heuheu’s leadership the congress fought successfully to retain and increase separate Māori representation in Parliament, and also opposed the Rūnanga Iwi Act 1990, which sought to give legal personality to tribes, as an unnecessary imposition that could lead to Crown domination.
The most visible demonstration of Hepi Te Heuheu’s political influence came towards the end of his life. In December 1994 the government announced its plan to settle historic treaty claims within a fixed budget, or fiscal envelope, of $1 billion over 10 years. Prime Minister Jim Bolger invited a group of senior Māori leaders to Wellington to discuss the plan. Te Heuheu publicly declined the invitation, instead calling tribal leaders and representatives of Māori organisations to a hui at Hīrangi marae, near Tūrangi, on 29 January 1995. This hui, and subsequent gatherings in September 1995 and April 1996, were each attended by around 1,000 leaders and representatives.
In his opening address at Hīrangi, Te Heuheu stated that Māori were no longer content to react to proposals unilaterally formulated by government, and that until the country had a constitution that allowed Māori to determine policies for Māori there would be continuing disquiet and an ongoing sense of injustice. Although his vision of whakakotahitanga (unity) within tradition was not uncontested, the Hīrangi hui demonstrated that Te Heuheu’s personal mana could unify Māori on an important issue. It also showed that the government could no longer expect to act unilaterally on issues important to Māori, and that fundamental constitutional issues lay behind Māori discontent.
Hepi Te Heuheu’s health was poor in his later years, affected by diabetes and related complications. On 31 July 1997 he died at Taupō Hospital, survived by his wife, Pauline (who died in August 1998), and their children. His tangihanga at Waihī marae was attended by a large number of Māori and other New Zealand leaders. Sir Robert Mahuta, speaking for the Māori Queen, observed that Te Heuheu’s quiet and unassuming effectiveness, rather than bluster and show, epitomised the authentic Māori concept of mana. Hepi’s eldest son, Tumu, succeeded him as paramount chief in a ceremony performed by Queen Te Atairangikaahu, following his father’s interment at Waihī.
Te Heuheu’s style of leadership was to encourage and empower others to be decision-makers, while keeping his own position in reserve for crises and impasses. He believed in keeping things simple and in protecting the inheritance of future generations. For this reason, and also because he moved easily among his people, both as a leader and a friend, he had a remarkable appeal to all Māori. His mana was also evident to many other New Zealanders, who admired his bearing and leadership.