Nene was born probably in the 1780s. He was the second son of Tapua, leader and tohunga of Ngāti Hao of Hokianga, and the younger brother of Patuone, the inheritor of their father's mana. By descent and marriage this family was connected to many of the major chiefs of Hokianga, Whangaroa, the Bay of Islands and other places. Through his mother, Te Kawehau, he was related to Hongi Hika, and also to the brothers Rewa (Manu), Moka and Te Wharerahi. His sister Tari married Te Wharerahi. Nene could trace his descent from Rāhiri, ancestor of Ngāpuhi, through a number of lines.
In early manhood Nene began to distinguish himself as a war leader. He may have fought his first battle around 1800, helping Te Hōtete, the father of Hongi Hika, avenge the sack of his pā Ōkuratope, at Waimate North, by Ngare Raumati, the people of Te Rāwhiti in the Bay of Islands. Thereafter Nene would have taken part in a series of battles involving Te Roroa, Ngāpuhi and his own people. These conflicts left a number of unresolved issues; some Māori believed that they led Nene to oppose Hōne Heke in the northern war of the 1840s.
Nene, as a war leader, went with the expedition which travelled the length of the North Island in 1819 and 1820, plundering and taking captives. Some of the group had muskets, which demoralised those they attacked, who had none at this time. From Ōmere, the lookout point, now called Te Rāwhiti Hill, the leaders of the expedition saw a ship in Cook Strait. Nene is said to have told Te Rauparaha, who was with them, to take over the area and enhance his power by trading for guns with the Europeans. It is very likely that Nene also took part in the great expeditions of the early 1820s led by Hongi Hika, Rewa and Pōmare I, and in the conflicts with Ngāti Whātua in 1824 and 1825. He and Patuone planned a further expedition to Waikato to avenge their relative Taui, who had been killed there with Pōmare I in 1826. But when the expedition went in 1827 they found the enemy so numerous that they returned without attacking them.
Soon after Nene returned, the death of Hongi Hika in March 1828 created tension throughout the north. At the same time the deaths of Tiki (son of Pōmare I) and Te Whareumu, and the mortal wounding of Muriwai made it seem inevitable that the Hokianga and the Bay of Islands people would come to blows. But the leaders involved, closely related, did everything possible to prevent this. Patuone and Nene placed the body of Te Whareumu among their own dead to prevent further fighting. Early in the following year, still planning to avenge Taui, Nene travelled south on the schooner New Zealander. In the Bay of Plenty he helped recover the brig Haweis, captured off Motutohorā (Whale Island); faced with Ngāti Maru threats against the north he dropped the expedition proposals.
With Muriwai dead and Patuone now settled in the Hauraki Gulf, Nene became the highest-ranking chief among his own people and one of the three leaders in Hokianga. It became his responsibility, often an onerous one, to protect the Wesleyan mission (which had moved to Hokianga in 1827) and the traders (who had begun to set themselves up in the district in the mid 1820s). Nene had seen the advantages of a Pākehā presence. Anxious that the district should not fall into disrepute among traders, he worked to keep the peace in the often turbulent frontier society. He followed up the plundering of the stranded schooner Fortitude in 1833 by helping to fortify Koutu, near Opononi, to protect the traders. He deterred some of the culprits, Te Rarawa, from further action by firing into their pā, Ōrongotea. Later in the 1830s he induced the Hokianga chiefs to give up the murderer of Henry Biddell for trial before a jury made up equally of Māori and Pākehā. When Kaitoke of Te Hikutū hapū, who had been influenced by the Nākahi belief, killed two Māori Wesleyan teachers, Nene and Patuone (who returned to Hokianga at intervals) punished him. By then Nene adhered to the Wesleyan faith. But he was not baptised until 1839, taking the name Tāmati Wāka, after Thomas Walker, an English merchant patron of the Church Missionary Society.
In all the Hokianga troubles of the 1820s and 1830s Māori competition for control of traders was the common theme. Rivalry between Europeans, for instance, Francis White and Thomas McDonnell, involved Māori leaders. Sometimes Nene and Patuone found themselves opposed to Moetara, and sometimes to Makoare Te Taonui. Nene, astute and kindly by nature, sought to preserve his own interests and to support the Wesleyan missionaries. He was friendly, too, with the CMS missionaries, especially Henry Williams.
By the 1830s Nene was regarded by the European community as a leader they could rely on and turn to for advice. After the visit of the French man-o'-war La Favorite in 1831, he was among the 13 Māori leaders who signed a petition to William IV. This was prompted by missionary fears of French intentions. Nene also signed the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand which proclaimed the sovereign rights of the Confederation of United Tribes and appealed to William IV for protection. The British Resident, James Busby, had proposed this move, in part again to counter French activities, in particular, the pretensions of Baron Charles de Thierry, who was planning to set himself up as an independent ruler of Hokianga land supposedly purchased in 1822 for 36 axes. Nene and Te Taonui let Thierry have 800 acres. Like other northern leaders who had welcomed Busby's arrival, Nene looked to the Resident to regulate Māori-Pākehā dealings.
When William Hobson arrived at the Bay of Islands in 1840, Nene, probably as a result of the increasing difficulties associated with European settlement, was inclined to support proposals that would bring order. At Waitangi he supported the lieutenant governor, but he would not have accepted the treaty as a total cession of sovereignty. However, as he said during the debate on 5 February, it was too late for Māori to turn their backs on the Europeans and the things they had brought with them. Whether he was influenced, as claimed, by the Wesleyan missionaries or not, Nene's intervention was crucial to the acceptance of the treaty. Even those who had spoken against it were persuaded to sign by Nene's argument that the British would not enslave them and that the lieutenant governor would act as a father and peacemaker.
The events of the next few years did not justify this optimism. The prosperity of Hokianga and of the north was threatened by the removal of the capital from Kororāreka (Russell) to Auckland, the imposition of customs duties, and restrictions on the felling of kauri. Nene threatened to fell a kauri in front of the governor should he visit Hokianga, and this last measure was withdrawn, but unrest continued and government interference was resented.
There were some widely held grievances, and Nene shared the concerns of his fellow chiefs, even after Hōne Heke cut down the flagstaff at Kororāreka for the first time in July 1844. This action arose from the belief that the treaty threatened their chiefly authority and their lands, although Nene himself was not particularly concerned about land loss. In late July 1844 Nene and Heke met at Bishop G. A. Selwyn's house at Waimate North; Heke wrote a letter of apology to Governor Robert FitzRoy, but it had not arrived before the governor came with 150 troops in August. Nene made it clear to the governor that he shared Heke's grievances, but he undertook to keep him quiet and to re-erect the flagstaff. FitzRoy removed the customs duties and the fees payable on land sales. Trade picked up; Nene's men guarded the new flagstaff.
But they did not try, more than by persuasion, to stop Heke from felling it a second and a third time in January 1845; Nene's people were not going to shed blood for the sake of 'a bit of wood'. As Henry Williams found out at a conference of 'friendly chiefs' at Paihia in February 1845, Nene and other leaders still questioned the government's honesty.
However, when on 11 March 1845 Heke cut the flagstaff down a fourth time, and Kororāreka was sacked, Nene was personally offended because he had seen to the re-erection of that flagstaff. Nene prepared to take action against Heke. He left Hokianga with 300 men to prevent Heke from reaching his inland base. He told CMS missionaries that he was determined to stop 'that proud fellow' and that he was carrying out his promise to Governor FitzRoy. It is likely that Nene regarded Heke, less qualified by birth and seniority, as an upstart challenger to his own position: 'This man [Heke] had…laughed at all our persuasions and threats [we] who are older than himself…. I had told the Governor when the first flagstaff was cut down that I would oppose Heke if he persisted in his folly and I am now come to do it.' Later in life Nene made it clear that he regarded himself as heir to Hongi Hika's mana.
Neutral leaders wanted to leave Heke to the government but Nene insisted on taking the field against him. Although Heke was reluctant to fight against his relations, he rejected Nene's offer of peace if he would disband his forces and move away. Angered by Nene's plundering, he refused to withdraw, and there was desultory skirmishing between the two sides. By the end of April 1845 the North Star had arrived with 300 government troops, some 120 seamen and marines and 40 volunteers, who made contact with Nene's force. In the war that followed, Nene, the major military leader among those taking the government side, was the only one, Māori or Pākehā, to manage a real victory over Heke and Kawiti – at Te Ahuahu on 12 June 1845.
During the war Nene was disgusted at the incompetence of the commanders of the troops; he called Colonel Henry Despard a 'very stupid person' at Ōhaeawai in June 1845, and in January 1846 he had to stop the colonel from assaulting Ruapekapeka before the defences had been breached by the guns. A week after the end of fighting at Ruapekapeka, Heke and Kawiti, unbeaten but exhausted, met Nene on the neutral ground of Pōmare II's pā, and made peace. Nene went to Auckland; there the governor consented to the proclamation of peace.
Although the government had lost mana, and although Heke was regarded as the only victor in the war, this period marks the beginning of Nene's ascendancy. He had been simply the leader of a small Hokianga community; now he began to be seen as the patron and the saviour of the government. During and after the wars of the 1840s FitzRoy and then Governor George Grey relied on his advice; Grey took his advice on the release of both Pōmare II in 1846 and Te Rauparaha in 1848. His opinions were quoted in official dispatches. Resident magistrates and land commissioners quoted him to justify their decisions. He went with the governor to Whanganui in 1847. He visited Auckland often in the 1850s to advise and comfort the authorities.
The government rewarded him for his support. A cottage was built for him at Russell and he received an annuity of £100; he is said to have used the first year's income to erect a flour mill as a peace offering to his former enemies. When Grey was knighted in 1848, he chose Nene as one of his esquires; the other was Wī Tako Ngātata. When Grey returned as governor in the 1860s he brought Nene a silver cup from Queen Victoria, inscribed 'From Victoria to her faithful subject Na [sic] Tāmati Wāka Nene.'
Not everything went well with Nene in his later life. With the decline of the Hokianga timber trade, he and his hapū fell heavily into debt, tentatively offering disputed land as payment. But his mana as the protector of the government was high. He had achieved his aim. It was said in 1860 that Heke's name was fading while 'Te Wāka's' was growing, that 'his name still lives'. He was the first Māori speaker at the Kohimarama conference in 1860; and his name headed the list of northern leaders invited by government to set up the first Tai Tokerau runanga in 1862.
His prestige among Europeans was great. When he died, on 4 August 1871, Governor George Bowen wrote in a dispatch to London that he was the Māori leader who 'did more than any other…to establish the Queen's authority and promote colonization'. He was buried with Church of England rites at Russell, his pall-bearers were his kin and local government officials, and his coffin was borne to the grave by 12 leading colonists. He had outlived his children. Before he became a Christian he may have had as many as six wives; he was survived by his second Christian wife, Ruth. To Māori, whether they agreed with him or not, Nene was a man of great mana.