Te Kari Waaka was born on 6 March 1916 at Poroporo, near Whakatāne, the son of Te Wiremu Tāmati Waaka of Ngāti Pūkeko, a farmer, and his wife, Whakakī Hiki of Tūhoe. His father was the first Māori from Whakatāne to win a scholarship to St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School, Auckland. His mother died when he was a child and he was then brought up by relatives. He was educated at Poroporo Native School and later played rugby for the local club.
In 1931 Te Kari moved to Rūātoki to live with the Tūhoe side of his family. He enlisted in January 1940 and served with the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion in Britain and Egypt. Sent home medically unfit, he was discharged in May 1941. In an informal ceremony in 1946 he married Caroline Te Kaare Kīngi of Ngāti Pūkeko and of Ngāti Rongo of Tūhoe; she was a grand-daughter of Hēmana Pōkiha, an important chief of Te Arawa. The couple farmed at Ngāhina; they raised 17 children, some of whom were adopted. They formalised their marriage on 28 May 1977 at Rūātoki.
After the war Waaka was one of five men chosen to learn the constitution and rules of the Ringatū church. The tohunga (Ringatū minister) who taught them was Puke Tari. Waaka was the only one to complete all the requisite studies. He was consecrated minister in 1960 and made a leader of the church for the Tūhoe area.
Waaka’s assistance and spiritual guidance were frequently sought by local schools. Most of his children attended Tāwera School and he was the chairman of the school committee for 15 years. He also served as chairman of the Rūātoki Māori District High School board until the school closed in 1970. To help provide for his family he worked in Auckland factories, returning home at fortnightly intervals, while his wife and children ran the farm. In Auckland he acted as an elder to Tūhoe living in the city. He wanted to set up a meeting place for them and his dream was realised with the opening in 1973 of Te Tira Hou, an urban marae at Panmure. Many Ringatū assemblies were conducted there and he was among those who conducted the prayers.
As a Ringatū minister Waaka was often summoned to lift the tapu from houses: he was one of the elders who opened the meeting house at the Trident High School in Whakatāne, and the dining hall at Pūkeko marae. He visited prisons to dispense spiritual consolation and also assisted prisoners to learn their identity through whakapapa. He travelled to most of the Pacific islands and to Australia with school and other cultural and sporting groups as their elder. In 1983 he was returning from a trip with the Manukau rugby team to the United States when his wife, Te Kaare, died in Hamilton.
Over the years Waaka advised many students, including Hugh Kāwharu, who became a professor of Māori studies. Waaka was highly regarded for his knowledge of marae ritual and of the multiple lines of whakapapa pertaining to various iwi. He was always willing to assist government departments, such as Social Welfare and Education, and also the Housing Corporation of New Zealand. He was involved in the introduction of a programme that made loans available for building homes on hapu lands with multiple owners.
When the art exhibition Te Māori was on display in Auckland in 1987 after its return from America, the mayor of Auckland, Dame Catherine Tizard, invited Waaka to organise the protocol. This was said to be the first time that the various Mataatua peoples had met together since the original landing of the canoe in New Zealand, and Waaka challenged the highest ranking chiefs of each tribe not to allow it to be the last. As a result a canoe, named Mātaatua, was built to take part in the 1990 celebrations at Waitangi, marking the 150th anniversary of the signing of the treaty. Waaka was one of the elders who taught the men paddling the canoes the rituals pertaining to them. During the celebrations he was presented to Queen Elizabeth II as a direct descendant of Te Pīariari, a chief of Ngāti Pūkeko who signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Te Wharaurangi, Whakatāne. As a gift from the Queen, the governor general, Sir Paul Reeves, gave Waaka a carved walking stick.
In November 1991 a ceremony to celebrate the arrival of the Mātaatua and Tainui canoes was held at Whangaparāoa. Waaka was expected to attend, but on 28 November he died in Whakatāne. In a unique tribute to him the Mātaatua canoe was loaded on to a road transporter and taken to Ngāhina marae during his tangihanga.