Hirini Te Kani, also known as Hirini Tuahine, was of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, a section of Ngāti Porou, and Rongowhakaata. He lived at Kaitī at Tūranga (Gisborne). He was the son of Rāwiri Te Eke and his principal wife, Riria Taheke. He was born probably in the 1820s. As a baby, Hirini and his mother accompanied a force led by Te Kani-ā-Takirau which tried to raise the siege of Ōkūrārenga pā, later known as Kai-uku, on the Māhia peninsula. It was routed by a section of the besiegers and Hirini and his mother were captured in the retreat. Rāwiri Te Eke ransomed them with a greenstone mere named Pahikauri. There are conflicting accounts of the captors' identity; they may have been Tūhoe, or Ngāti Tūwharetoa with Ngāti Raukawa allies.
Hirini's father signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Tūranga in May 1840 as Te Eke. In the following years Hirini became a leader in the Tūranga area. In 1852 he, with a kinsman, Rūtene Te Eke, and Pāhora Pāhoe, invited George Read to establish a trading store at Kaitī. Before his death in 1856 Te Kani-ā-Takirau chose Hirini to be his successor as leader of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti. Hirini was related to Te Kani-ā-Takirau through his great grandfather, Tama-i-Hikitea-te-rangi, a first cousin of Hinematioro, Te Kani-ā-Takirau's grandmother. Hirini, previously called Hirini Tuahine, then changed his name to Hirini Te Kani.
Hirini Te Kani was an active member of the Anglican church. He was one of the three lay representatives for Tūranga at the first two synods of the diocese of Waiapu; the other two representatives were Wiremu Pere and Ānaru Matete. In 1863 he was a member of the standing committee. Despite being a leader of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Hirini Te Kani was not appointed an assessor in 1862, when Governor George Grey's runanga system was introduced. Consequently he took part in a meeting at Pouawa where he and Raharuhi Rukupō pledged never to have anything to do with the government.
Early in 1865 the Pai Mārire prophet Te Ua Haumēne sent emissaries to Hirini Te Kani in an attempt to gain his adherence. The European missionaries and settlers hoped that Hirini would order the Pai Mārire party from the district as soon as it arrived. He was expected to meet them at Taureka and order them to return to Ōpōtiki. Instead they were allowed to proceed to Patutahi and Manutūkē, where they could seek converts among the Māori population of Tūranga. In March 1865 a ceremony was held at which the Pai Mārire emissaries presented to Hirini Te Kani the preserved head of Captain Thomas Lloyd and tried, unsuccessfully, to get him to accept two flags and a European prisoner. Although Hirini told the Pai Mārire followers to leave the district, they did not do so and gained a considerable following.
Hirini Te Kani, a leader of the pro-government Māori in Tūranga, tried to bring about reconciliation and maintain peace, but this became increasingly difficult after Hauhau forces took over Poverty Bay and looted the abandoned houses of settlers. Bishop William Williams and his family left on 3 April 1865. Ngāi Te Kete, a division of Rongowhakaata, sent for the pro-government Ngāti Porou leader Mōkena Kōhere. Together they raised a British ensign at Tūranga, in defiance of the Hauhau. Hirini Te Kani was angered by this as he had some claim in the land on which the flag had been raised and he had not been consulted. When, on 4 June, Donald McLean, the provincial superintendent and agent for the general government, arrived at Tūranga to arbitrate, Hirini Te Kani would not take the oath of allegiance until the flag had been taken down.
Hirini Te Kani tried to dissuade Pai Mārire followers at Tūranga from going north to join the fighting between pro-government and Hauhau Ngāti Porou in Waiapu. He did not, however, actively oppose Pai Mārire believers and visited their pā at Waerenga-a-hika, near Tūranga. Warfare became intense between Ngāti Porou factions and in September reached the Uawa River. On 23 September 100 Tūranga men left to join the fighting at Tokomaru Bay, despite Hirini Te Kani's attempts to stop them. He feared that pro-government Ngāti Porou, who were clearly winning, would seek retaliation for this failure to prevent Hauhau from Tūranga entering the conflict, and went to Napier to ask McLean for arms and ammunition. The Europeans, however, believed that any arms he received would end up in the hands of the Hauhau forces, and sent instead 26 military settlers and an officer.
Hirini Te Kani also wanted pro-government Tūranga people to be able to restore order in their district rather than have Ngāti Porou troops brought in. Nevertheless, Ngāti Porou troops began to arrive on 24 October when Hēnare Pōtae and 30 of his men came to Tūranga. The Hauhau in Tūranga were besieged by government troops at Waerenga-a-hika and surrendered on 22 November 1865. Over 100 had been killed and scores wounded. By November Hirini Te Kani had 80 armed men but like other pro-government Māori of Tūranga he took little or no part in the suppression of Pai Mārire in the district.
After the defeat of the Hauhau forces in Tūranga, Hirini Te Kani sought to keep land in Māori ownership and to prevent confiscation. He and his men were among the government troops that went in pursuit of Te Kooti after he and his followers escaped from the Chatham Islands and landed in Poverty Bay. He was described by McLean as having done good service against Te Kooti, and was given the rank of captain.
After the wars Hirini Te Kani continued to be a leader of the Māori of Tūranga. He opposed the use of alcohol although he had previously been a heavy drinker. His son died in 1874 and a large funeral ceremony was held for him. Hirini Te Kani died on 5 July 1896 at his home at Kaitī. He was thought to be in his late 60s or early 70s. A monument in his memory stands on Kaitī Hill.