The most famous of the women of Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti 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 Pākehā 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 Māori 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 Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Maniapoto shaped her future. Her mother, Hinekiore, was of Ngāti Hinemihi, a hapū of Ngāti Tūwharetoa which lived in the Taringamotu Valley. Her father, Rāwiri Te Rangihirawea (also known as Te Wētini), was also of Ngāti Tūwharetoa. She had ancestral links with Ngāti Maniapoto. Puhiwahine learned the traditions of her people from her mother. She was taught tribal songs and the proper technique of poi and pūkana of Ngāti Tūwharetoa. 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 Waipā Valley, Puhiwahine met Hauāuru, a young Ngāti Maniapoto chief of Matakore hapū, 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 Hauāuru 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 Ngāti Toa relatives in the south. Her romantic affair with Hauāuru 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 Ngāti Toa kin. During her visit to the South Island she was invited by Taiaroa, a leading chief of Ngāi 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 Māori form in some of her songs.
Not long after this, she again journeyed into Ngāti Maniapoto territory with her people. On this occasion she visited Paripari (near present day Te Kūiti), the home of Tanirau (Taonui), a Ngāti Rora chief who was a cousin of Hauāuru. From Tanirau she learnt that Hauāuru 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 Hauāuru.
From Paripari they went to Ōrāhiri near Ōtorohanga, then continued on to Ahuahu at the southern end of Kāwhia 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 Māruapoto. 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 Taupō, by way of Kihikihi and Pārāwera, and then Ōwairaka, 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 Taupō 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 Whanganui. Gotty knew his wife as Elizabeth or Rihi. They had two sons, both of whom married women of Ngāti Parewahawaha of Rangitīkei. John Gotty is said to have supplied the British armed forces in the Whanganui area in the 1840s. In more peaceful times he ran the Rutland Hotel in Whanganui. 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, Ngāti 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 Ōngarue, where she lived with her son George until her death there (according to a later account) on 18 February 1906. She was buried at Ōngarue, but her remains now rest in the family cemetery, Te Takapau-tīraha‑o-Tūtetawhā, at Ōruaiwi, where her mother also lies.