The most famous of the women of Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Maniapoto in the nineteenth century was undoubtedly Rihi Puhiwahine Te Rangi-hirawea. She knew many of the notable chiefs and leading women among the tribes of her turbulent times, when tribal wars were fought and Pakeha began settling in their land – when 'The patu has opposed / The unsheathed sword, / and the loaded gun.' It was a time when some of the greatest Maori poets were in their prime, and, inspired by these events, they composed and sang songs of love and hate, peace and war, jollity and derision. Puhiwahine was the greatest of them all. Her songs are still sung at many gatherings of her people.
She was born on the bank of the Taringamotu River near Taumarunui, possibly about 1816. Her descent from and connections to both Ngati Tuwharetoa and Ngati Maniapoto shaped her future. Her mother, Hinekiore, was of Ngati Hinemihi, a hapu of Ngati Tuwharetoa which lived in the Taringamotu Valley. Her father, Rawiri Te Rangi-hirawea (also known as Te Wetini), was also of Ngati Tuwharetoa. She had ancestral links with Ngati Maniapoto. Puhiwahine learned the traditions of her people from her mother. She was taught tribal songs and the proper technique of poi and pukana of Ngati Tuwharetoa. An apt pupil, she became competent at an early age.
She travelled extensively with her people, and her artistic accomplishments, wit and charm are said to have captivated all those with whom she came in contact. During one of her travels into the Waipa Valley, Puhiwahine met Hauauru, a young Ngati Maniapoto chief of Matakore hapu, with whom she fell in love. He was already married and Puhiwahine's brothers, Ketu and Maraku, would not agree to a marriage that would relegate her to the status of secondary wife.
The affair with Hauauru was broken off when the party visited other villages, where Puhiwahine was admired and courted by young chiefs. Sometime after returning home, she was taken on a visit to her Ngati Toa relatives in the south. Her romantic affair with Hauauru was often on her mind during her travels, as revealed in the songs she later composed, inspired by her love for him.
Puhiwahine was made welcome by her Ngati Toa kin. During her visit to the South Island she was invited by Taiaroa, a leading chief of Ngai Tahu, to visit his home where she met many European people. By the time she returned home she had learned some English words, which she later introduced in a Maori form in some of her songs.
Not long after this, she again journeyed into Ngati Maniapoto territory with her people. On this occasion she visited Paripari (near present day Te Kuiti), the home of Tanirau (Taonui), a Ngati Rora chief who was a cousin of Hauauru. From Tanirau she learnt that Hauauru had taken a second and a third wife. It was at this time that Puhiwahine composed two of her many songs inspired by her love for Hauauru.
From Paripari they went to Orahiri near Otorohanga, then continued on to Ahuahu at the southern end of Kawhia Harbour. There the chief Te Poihipi soon became enamoured of Puhiwahine. When she announced that she and Te Poihipi were to become man and wife, her people would not give their consent in the absence of her brothers. They then moved on to Whatiwhatihoe at the foot of Pirongia Mountain. This was an important meeting place, and on the occasion of Puhiwahine's arrival, tribes were gathering there. Among them was her distant cousin Te Mahutu Te Toko, of Maruapoto. A striking figure with a handsome, tattooed face, he was a good singer and orator and a lively conversationalist. They fell in love, and were able to spend many days together before Puhiwahine's brothers arrived. On learning of their sister's latest love affair Ketu and Maraku lost no time in setting off for Lake Taupo, by way of Kihikihi and Parawera, and then Owairaka, where they stayed for some days. It was here that Puhiwahine composed her love song for Te Mahutu. It remains popular still, and is usually sung at weddings and farewells.
Two years after her return to Taupo from Whatiwhatihoe, in the mid 1840s, Puhiwahine met German-born John Gotty (Johann Maximilian Goethe). They married, and lived with her people at Meringa for a time before going to Wanganui. Gotty knew his wife as Elizabeth or Rihi. They had two sons, both of whom married women of Ngati Parewahawaha of Rangitikei. John Gotty is said to have supplied the British armed forces in the Wanganui area in the 1840s. In more peaceful times he ran the Rutland Hotel in Wanganui. Later, from the early 1870s, he and Puhiwahine lived at Matahiwi.
After John Gotty's death in 1893, Puhiwahine mourned the loss of her husband for many months. She made known to her sons her wish to return to her people and place of birth. Her younger son, George, took her back to Meringa. Subsequently, Ngati Maniapoto invited her people to take Puhiwahine to Oparure, as they wished to commiserate with her.
At the marae at Oparure, after the ceremony of tangi was over, the people – guests and hosts alike – retired to the bounds of the marae. When Puhiwahine finally realised that only she and Te Mahutu were left standing, she dropped the shawl from her shoulders, and with all the artistry and passion of her youth burst into song. It was a highly emotional moment. In voice and gesture she gave a polished performance to the last note as she sang her rhapsody of love. Te Mahutu remained standing throughout. At the end of her song she sat and sobbed quietly. Te Mahutu, with his mere in hand, delivered his speech of welcome. He came forward to where Puhiwahine was sitting, and there, surrounded by their people, they greeted each other. This was the melancholy sequel to their former affair.
Puhiwahine returned to Ongarue, where she lived with her son George until her death there (according to a later account) on 18 February 1906. She was buried at Ongarue, but her remains now rest in the family cemetery, Te Takapu-Tiraha-o-Tutetawha, at Oruaiwi, where her mother also lies.