Puti Tīpene Wātene, popularly known as Steve, was born in Kirikiri, Thames, on 18 August 1910, the only child of Rose Maria Savage (Hāwete) of Te Arawa and Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, and her second husband, Toke Wātene, a farmer of Ngāti Maru descent. He had a half-brother from his mother’s first marriage, and his parents also fostered more than 30 children. His paternal grandparents were Mita Wātene and his wife, Kataraina Mātene, the daughter of Mātene Te NgĀ, a noted Ngāti Maru chief. He had strong connections to the Tainui, Te Arawa, Mātaatua, Horouta and Tākitimu canoes. His iwi and hapū affiliations included Ngāti Te Aute, Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Hauāuru, Ngāti Paoa and Ngāti Tamaterā.
The Wātene family were devout members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Tīpene, who was baptised on 1 September 1918 at the age of eight, was to retain a strong Mormon faith throughout his life. He attended Thames High School, Ōpōtiki District High School and then the Mormon church’s Māori Agricultural College in Hawke’s Bay. After leaving college he moved to Auckland, where he worked variously as a labourer and clerk. An exceptional sportsman, Wātene achieved great success in rugby league, captaining the Manukau club and the provincial team. He captained the New Zealand rugby league team in three tests in 1936 and 1937, and led the Māori team to a famous victory over Australia in 1937. George Nēpia and Jack Hemi were two of a number of outstanding footballers to play under his leadership. At the end of his playing career he became a coach and selector. About 1931, in Auckland, Wātene married Phyllis May Rukutai, a Tainui woman from Kōmata, Hauraki.
During the 1940s and 1950s Wātene became involved in the integration of rural Māori to the urban environment, particularly in the Mount Wellington – Tāmaki area. As well as helping to arrange state housing for the newcomers, he was instrumental in the formation of Ngāti Muturangi Māori Club and in 1948 helped establish the Māori Community Centre in Fanshawe Street, Auckland, a forerunner of modern urban marae. During the 1951 waterfront dispute Wātene and two others toured tribal districts on behalf of the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union to discourage Māori from volunteering as strike-breakers. In 1953 he was elected to the Mount Wellington Borough Council, serving for three years. He was also a member of the Tāmaki School Committee. Wātene Road in Mount Wellington was named in his honour after he left the borough.
Around 1956 the family moved to Petone, where Steve Wātene became a hostel manager and industrial welfare officer for the Gear Meat Company. He worked closely with trade unions and earned a reputation as a man of fairness and strong convictions. He was a member of the Petone Borough Council (1962–65) and became chairman of its works committee. He served on the administrative committee of the New Zealand Māori Council and worked for the Māori Education Foundation. His commitment to education was spurred by his belief in its importance to the development of Māori self-determination.
Active in the New Zealand Labour Party, Wātene served on the Māori Advisory Committee and its successor, the Māori Policy Committee, from 1955, chairing the latter from 1958 to 1963. He represented Māori on the party’s national executive for six years, and was elected as Labour MP for Eastern Māori in November 1963. A Mormon, he broke the stranglehold of the Ratana movement on the Māori seats, and he was known to hold different political and social views from the Ratana–Labour members. Wātene was an effective MP, respected by both sides of the House, and a staunch advocate for Māori interests. He was acutely aware of the plight of his constituents and remained accessible to their concerns. A fierce opponent of land sales, he criticised Ralph Hanan’s Māori Purposes Bill 1965, which amended the Māori Affairs Act 1953 and other legislation, and argued against the removal of the meeting house and cemetery at Ruamata marae to make way for Rotorua’s airport. He also vehemently challenged racist or patronising remarks in the House.
Deeply committed to the Treaty of Waitangi, Wātene maintained a traditional view of the rights and duties embodied in the relationship between Māori and the Crown. He saw the treaty as a guarantee of Māori parliamentary participation, and supported increasing the number of Māori seats. After his father’s death in 1955 he had become a spokesman for Ngāti Maru in their claims over the Hauraki goldfields.
While he supported integration, Wātene also believed in Māori self-sufficiency. He urged that the country’s wealth be spread evenly and expressed his concern about the widening gap between Māori and Pākehā. However, he saw the role of the government as creating an environment where people might thrive as a result of their labours, not as a welfare agency. He foresaw continued urbanisation, and argued that, as well as education, Māori needed realistic employment opportunities.
In 1966 Wātene represented the New Zealand Parliament at an Inter-Parliamentary Union conference in Tehran. He was one of the first Māori to represent Parliament at such a level. The following year, on 14 June 1967, he died at Parliament Buildings, Wellington. He suffered a heart attack while cross-examining a witness at a sitting of the Māori Affairs Committee on the controversial Māori Affairs Amendment Bill. Wātene had feared that the bill would lead to the continued alienation of Māori land, an issue at the heart of his mission as an MP. After a large tangihanga at Te Tatau-o-te-Pō marae, Lower Hutt, and a funeral service at the local Mormon church, he was buried at Te Puni cemetery, Petone. He was survived by his wife Phyllis and 11 of his children.