Tiakitai was a Ngāti Kahungunu leader of great mana in the Waimārama area of Heretaunga (Hawke's Bay) in the first half of the nineteenth century. Through his father, Te Ōrihau, he was descended from Te Rangikoiānake I and Te Kaihou, daughter of Te Rehunga. One of his great-uncles was Hāwea. Through his mother, Hinekona, he was a descendant of Honomokai, Hinepare, Te Ūpokoiri and Te Whatuiāpiti. His maternal grandmother was Horonga-i-te-rangi, a sister of Te Uamairangi, the paramount chief of Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri and Ngāti Hinemanu during Tiakitai's childhood. The hapū with which Tiakitai was most closely associated was Ngāti Kurukuru, descendants of Te Whatuiāpiti living at Waimārama.
In the early nineteenth century there were a series of clashes in Heretaunga between Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti of Heretaunga and Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri of Heretaunga and inland Pātea (the upper Rangitīkei district). Tiakitai was related to both sides, and his early involvement seems to have been on behalf of his own community at Waimārama. In retaliation for the death of one of his people he sent a war party which killed a man called Tākaha near Ōtāwhao.
About 1823 Tiakitai and Te Pareihe of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti joined a war party with Ngāpuhi leader Te Wera Hauraki and Te Hauwaho of Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti. They occupied Te Roto-a-Tara pā, near Te Aute. Tiakitai then asked Te Wera and Ngāpuhi to help him avenge the death of his child Pani, whom he believed to have been killed by witchcraft by the people living south of Pōrangahau. Wiremu Te Pōtangaroa, of Te Ika-a-Papauma hapū, living on the coast between Ākitio and Castlepoint, was attacked. Tiakitai killed one of Te Pōtangaroa's daughters, a chief called Pato, and 50 others; another of Te Pōtangaroa's daughters, Hinerohi, was permitted to escape.
After skirmishes in Northern Wairarapa Tiakitai and his party of Ngāpuhi returned to Te Roto-a-Tara, where they heard that Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri and their allies were on their way to attack them. Tiakitai, Te Pareihe, Te Wera and the other leaders took their combined forces to meet the enemy, defeating them in a battle known as Te Whiti-o-Tū, at the Waipāwa River, near Tikokino. While this campaign was in progress, some of the prisoners taken in Wairarapa by Ngāpuhi escaped from Te Roto-a-Tara. They included two women called Te Mātahi and Hineiaurua, who fled to Waimārama and were given shelter there by Tiakitai's people. Tiakitai took both of them as wives, but a little later their Wairarapa menfolk came to reclaim them. Tiakitai allowed them to be taken away by canoe, but at Mataikona, Te Mātahi escaped and made her way back to Tiakitai. Both she and Hineiaurua became permanent wives of Tiakitai. Tiakitai and Te Mātahi, later called Ani, had a son, who later took the name Te Teira (Taylor). Tiakitai and Hineiaurua had a daughter named Hōriana Te Whare.
While Te Pareihe, Tiakitai and Te Wera were at Te Roto-a-Tara, a large force of northern tribes led by Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II of Taupō besieged the island pā, building a bridge to reach it because the Heretaunga and Ngāpuhi defendants had taken all the available canoes to the island. Tiakitai was one of the leaders who drove the besiegers back over their own bridge, killing the Waikato chief Te Ārāwai.
After this battle Te Pareihe warned the other chiefs that it was no longer safe to remain in Heretaunga, and led many away to Nukutaurua, on the eastern coast of the Māhia peninsula. When Ngāti Raukawa, settled at Taupō under pressure from northern war parties, learned that Heretaunga had been abandoned, a large party under Te Whatanui came to take possession. They built a pā at Puketapu, on the banks of the Tūtaekurī River. Tiakitai was one of the chiefs who led a war party which succeeded in dislodging Ngāti Raukawa.
Tiakitai gathered the remaining people of Heretaunga at Te Pakake pā, on an island inside the harbour at Ahuriri (Napier). Te Wherowhero of Waikato sent a war party to Heretaunga to avenge the defeats of Waikato and their allies, but gave orders that the chiefs of Heretaunga were to be saved alive. Waikato forces, armed with muskets, inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the defenders of Te Pakake. Many were killed, including Te Hauwaho; the chiefs Tiakitai, Te Hāpuku, Te Moananui and Tāreha were among those captured. On the orders of Te Wherowhero, Tiakitai was released; the others were carried off to captivity in Waikato.
After the Waikato party withdrew, Tiakitai, alone in the leadership of the Heretaunga survivors, collected up the refugees and refortified Te Pakake. Some time later a message reached him from Te Wherowhero, inviting him to Waikato to make peace. On his way there Tiakitai found Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri fugitives from the defeats at Te Whiti-o-Tū and Te Roto-a-Tara living on Ngāti Tūwharetoa lands at Taupō. He invited them to return to Heretaunga under his protection. He then went on to Waikato where Te Wherowhero made peace with him and released Te Moananui, Te Hāpuku and the other chiefs of Heretaunga into his custody. At Taupō on his way home he found that only a small party of Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri were prepared to trust his offer of protection. They included the young chief Kawepō and his sister Ērena Mekemeke, who were the children of Te Pakapaka, a cousin of Tiakitai's mother. Both Te Moananui and Te Hāpuku wished to take Ērena as a wife, but Kawepō and Mananui gave her to Tiakitai. Tiakitai and Ērena had a daughter, Hāromi Te Ata, who married Karauria, the son of Te Moananui's brother, Te Mātenga. Hāromi and Karauria were the parents of Airini Donnelly.
After the disaster at Te Pakake, many more Heretaunga people had fled to the protection of Te Pareihe and Te Wera at Nukutaurua. About 1824 or 1825 Ngāti Te Koherā, of Ngāti Raukawa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa origin, invaded Heretaunga under the chief Te Momo-a-Irawaru, intending to make a second attempt to establish a home for themselves in this relatively deserted area. They established themselves at Kahotea pā, near Te Roto-a-Tara, and Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri occupied Te Roto-a-Tara pā. When Te Pareihe and Te Wera heard of this, they brought a joint war party, well armed with muskets, up the Tukituki River in canoes. Tiakitai joined them with his party, and Te Momo fought and was killed at Kahotea pā.
Tiakitai sent his brother Tātere to ask Ngāti Te Ūpokoiri to let Kawepō come out of Te Roto-a-Tara before the pā was besieged. His request was refused, and Te Pareihe's force took Te Roto-a-Tara by storm, after dragging their canoes across from the Tukituki River into the lake. Many captives were taken and it was intended to consume parts of their bodies to destroy their mana. Kawepō was placed alive on a fire, but Tātere intervened to save him. Kawepō was then placed under Tiakitai's care and later turned over to Ngāpuhi as their captive.
After this victory Te Pareihe's people and Ngāpuhi returned to Nukutaurua and Tiakitai remained in Heretaunga. Some of the time he resided at Te Pakake, and at other times at Waimārama. He may also have occupied the pā on Motu-o-Kura (Bare Island). About this time he visited Port Jackson (Sydney) for the first time, travelling in a European vessel sent by Te Wherowhero to give Tiakitai an opportunity to arm his people with muskets and powder.
In the 1830s Tiakitai may have spent periods living with Te Pareihe at Nukutaurua. They took part in campaigns at Taupō, Manawatū and on the East Coast, and Tiakitai developed interests in trading and travel. He was known to the whaling communities of Hawke's Bay as 'Jacky Tie', and acquired his own whaleboat.
In 1839 Tiakitai was at Waimārama when Captain W. B. Rhodes arrived on the coast of Hawke's Bay. Tiakitai sold Rhodes an area of land from Kawakawa, near Cape Turnagain, to Cape Kidnappers, while other chiefs sold land from that point north to Ahuriri. Rhodes's deed, dated 31 December 1839, purported to buy an area totalling 883,000 acres for £393 worth of goods and money. The goods included guns, powder, ropes, tools, clothes and blankets. According to one source Tiakitai's share was a shirt, a pair of trousers, a pot, an axe and many blankets.
In the late 1830s and early 1840s the former inhabitants of Heretaunga and lands further south began to return to their homes. Those who had occupied land from Waimārama to Pōrangahau now came under the mana of Tiakitai and he assigned areas of land for them to occupy and cultivate. As the only major chief who had not abandoned Heretaunga and fled to Nukutaurua, his mana was recognised by all.
Tiakitai did not take a great interest in the Christianity preached by the missionary William Colenso, who settled in Heretaunga in 1844. He was annoyed at the missionary's interference in his affairs, yet when Colenso was assaulted by the chief Hoani Waikato it was Tiakitai who presided over the gathering to decide on proper compensation, and directed that the women and children of those who had slandered Colenso should submit to Christian instruction.
On 1 September 1847 Tiakitai set out with 21 companions on his whaleboat to visit Wairoa and Māhia and to attend a marriage feast. During the night a heavy sea arose and the boat was lost with all hands. Tiakitai was greatly mourned by his people, and was survived by some of his wives and children, including Te Teira Tiakitai, a son later named Pakiaka, and his daughters, Hāromi and Hōriana.