Wī Whitu was born on 4 December 1908 at Maungapōhatu, at the height of Rua Kēnana’s religious leadership there. His parents were Whitu Te Rangimakā (Makā) Tawa (or Kanuehi) of Hāmua, a Tūhoe hapū in Ruātoki, and his wife, Kirikino (also known as Koutu) Hikihiki of the Tamakaimoana hapū at Maungapōhatu. Wī was the eldest of their family of four sons and three daughters.
Maka had become a devoted follower of Rua in 1907. His sister Pēhirangi was one of Rua’s wives and he and his brothers were given a crucial place in the accomplishment of Rua’s teachings. Part of this doctrine was to release Tūhoe from the restrictions of custom and clear Tūhoe lands of all sacred places. This involved the wholesale exhumation of human remains and their return to Maungapōhatu. By divine inspiration Rua chose Maka and his brothers to fulfil this task. The Rīwaiti (Levites), Rua’s priests, performed a ritual over the brothers to protect them from tapu and allow them to perform their duties without fear.
While Wī was growing up in Maungapōhatu, attendance at church and daily prayers was enforced by the Riwaiti. This daily ritual was a tedium to Wī and his father and uncles, who thought their time was better spent hunting wild cattle, pigs and birds. Wī attended the Presbyterian mission school, which opened in 1918, but did not take an interest in religion until late in life, when he joined the Ringatū church in Rūātoki.
In April 1916 a force of policemen entered Maungapōhatu to arrest Rua for non-attendance at court on charges of illegally selling liquor. Wī Whitu always remembered the people sitting on the marae watching the armed policemen in their uniforms as they marched up the valley, and the children’s admiration of Commissioner John Cullen’s horse as it danced towards them, with the commissioner waving his pistol. He vividly remembered the gunfire and crying as his father and others were led away with Rua, and the women who wailed and farewelled them. In 1980, as he recounted these events, Wī Whitu did not harbour any malice towards the police.
From 1924 he followed his father and others to find work on sheep stations in the Gisborne district, where he worked as a cook. His spare time was spent with his father learning blacksmithing and carpentry. After the shearing seasons closed they would return to Maungapōhatu, Waimana and Rāhitiroa. During these periods he was taught how to make medicine, and to perform midwifery and other activities that the tohunga of Maungapōhatu dictated. And always there were the prayers, which he shunned.
About 1930 he married Rāwinia Rangiaho (or Maitaranui) of Ngāti Rongo in Rūātoki, where the couple settled. He worked as a general farmhand on Pākehā farms in Ōwhakatoro, Waimana and Ōpouriao. In 1932 their only child, a daughter, was born.
Whitu was short but solidly built and very strong. His hands were huge, typical of blacksmiths, but when he performed his midwifery duties the same hands delivered and handled babies with delicate gentleness. He delivered many babies, and knew traditional ways of making difficult births easier. He was also an expert horse handler. In the mid 1940s he worked as a stable hand, fitting horses with light racing shoes before races and removing them and attaching heavy shoes afterwards; he was able to do this in eight minutes. His hammer never lost its beat even when shoeing a struggling, difficult horse. He also performed surgery on horses, gelded stallions and applied his own brand of medicine to horses suffering a form of rheumatism. Before veterinary services were established, Pākehā farmers from Ōpouriao turned to him to treat their horses.
Whitu had a sense of humour and devilment. On one occasion he was responsible for burying a body, and he and his assistant took it to a cemetery. They were alone, as Tūhoe cemeteries were then a long distance from the marae and were usually in the bush, and burial customs introduced by Rua meant only the gravediggers accompanied the body. Whitu proceeded to excavate a plot whose occupant he had buried some years before. At a certain depth Whitu dug up a tin and opened it. It was full of money that had been buried with the owner. Whitu sprinkled the money with river water to neutralise any tapu and went to the Tāneatua Hotel, having sworn his frightened assistant to secrecy. At the hotel he bought a number of kegs of beer and returned to Waimana, where the people enjoyed and got thoroughly inebriated on Whitu’s treat.
Another time he had a dispute with a farmer about non-payment of wages. Whitu took matters into his own hands and rustled some of the farmer’s cattle, herding them through a river for some considerable distance to erase any tracks, and then driving them through the bush to trucks waiting to carry them to Auckland.
When it came to handling the dead or exhuming them, Wī and his father were legendary. Most exhumations took place in the bush and were carried out in the dark of the early morning and completed before daybreak so as to avoid flies. If for some reason they had to handle the remains during daylight, they avoided swatting at the flies that flew around their heads: to do so meant continuing to hear the constant buzz of flies, a condition that could only be rectified by a tohunga of some mana. The most difficult bones to exhume were those of the hand, because there are so many of them, but they developed a technique of holding a certain bone of the hand and extracting it in such a way that the rest of the bones followed.
Whitu exhumed many human remains on his own. In 1940 he dug up the body of a shearer buried four years earlier at Ōtāne, and returned it by horse to Maungapōhatu. Shortly after a Christmas in the 1950s he assisted police to remove the body of a suicide from a house in Rūātoki, and abused the deceased for disturbing his festivities.
Because of the nature of their work the exhumers came under extreme tapu and had to endure a period of separation and be fed with food held at the end of a stick. However, Whitu did not observe the custom, having experienced the mischief of feeders who would offer the food and then pull it away. He avoided this by wearing gloves and, with a knife and fork, enjoying his meal. His way of dealing with tapu was to wash his hands thoroughly for some time.
Wi Whitu was a hard worker all his life and was referred to as the man with the heart of a horse. He and his wife had some of the best flower and vegetable gardens in Rūātoki. He is remembered for his sense of humour, his ability in the kitchens of marae, and his hospitality. Although he and Rāwinia had only one child, they raised more than 20 grandchildren and other adopted children. Wī Whitu died on 31 May 1983 at Whakātane. His tangihanga was held at Waikirikiri marae in Rūātoki and he was buried in the cemetery close to the marae. Rāwinia died a week later and was buried next to their daughter at Tauarau, in Rūātoki.