Raharuhi Rukupo of Rongowhakaata is said to have been born at Orakaiapu pa, Manutuke, in Poverty Bay, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was the second son of Te Pohepohe (also known as Pitau) of Ngati Maru, and Hinekoua of Ngati Kaipoho. He also belonged to Ngai Tamanuhiri.
As a child Rukupo was adopted by his maternal aunt, the sister of Hinekoua. According to one account of his life, they visited their Te Whakatohea relatives and their kin in the Waiapu valley and in the north, and as he grew older Rukupo fought in his people's wars in Taranaki and elsewhere. He is said to have been one of the great carvers who fashioned Kaitangata, the house of Te Rangihaeata of Ngati Toa, on Mana Island. Some traditions state that he lived for a time in the north with Ngati Wai.
When Rukupo heard that his elder brother, Tamati Waka Mangere, the great chief of Ngati Kaipoho, had died, he returned to Poverty Bay, having inherited his brother's mana. It is said that the people gave him the name Raharuhi because his return was like that of Lazarus of the Scriptures. This name may also have been a baptismal name, as he was a teacher at the Anglican mission stations at Turanga (Gisborne).
Rukupo is thought to have been one of the carvers, with Te Waaka Perohuka, of the decorative work on the war canoe Te Toki-a-Tapiri, which is now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It is said that Rukupo carved the stern-post and Perohuka the prow. Both were in the canoe when it joined the war fleet led by Paratene Turangi against Ngati Porou in 1843.
In 1842 Rukupo began the house Te Hau-ki-Turanga as a memorial to his elder brother. Te Hau-ki-Turanga was the embodiment of the spirit which drove him after his brother's death, and a symbol through which Rukupo inspired his people. It, too, is the house which brought him widespread fame. Eighteen expert carvers from the Turanga school, including his younger brother Pera Tawhiti, worked on the house. An example of Rukupo's expertise can be seen in the carved posts and the construction of the house.
Te Hau-ki-Turanga had a complex subsequent history. It was dismantled and removed under the instructions of government minister J.C. Richmond in 1867, as part of the confiscation of Turanga lands following the battle of Waerenga a Hika. Token sums were paid to some local Maori (who it was later found were not the owners), but Richmond regarded the building as having been essentially seized as a war trophy. Te Hau-ki-Turanga was restored, and displayed first in the Dominion Museum and later Te Papa. The terms of its removal remained controversial, and Rongowhakaata unsuccessfully petitioned the government for its return on several occasions over the following 130 years. The issue was raised before the Waitangi Tribunal’s Gisborne inquiry in 2001, and the Crown conceded that the forcible taking of the building constituted a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi and that it should be returned to Rongowhakaata.
In 1849 Rukupo was among the carvers of a new church at Manutuke, over which a dispute occurred with the missionary William Williams. The carvings intended for the church depicted ancestral figures which Williams thought obscene. After angry discussion between Williams and the carvers, Rukupo mediated. A new, less representational pattern was developed by the carvers, and carried over into the kowhaiwhai designs in the church. This was one of the first experiments in the style of figurative kowhaiwhai known as Te Pitau-a-Manaia. The church was eventually opened, although incomplete, in 1863.
Rukupo befriended the missionaries when they first came to Turanga, but later became disillusioned with Europeans. In 1851 he opposed the proposal of Donald McLean, the government land purchase officer, to establish a township in Poverty Bay. He sought the return of land occupied by settlers, and strongly objected to Pakeha living on the land of his ancestors. Nevertheless, he was apparently appointed an assessor in the late 1850s. Among his own people he acted as a magistrate. He grew large crops of kumara and wheat, and provided the millstones for a mill at Turanga which Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki helped to build.
In March 1865 Pai Marire missionaries arrived in Poverty Bay. Their presence was not opposed by Rukupo and other Maori leaders, who assured the European settlers of their safety. Rukupo became a convert to Pai Marire and for a time was one of the most outspoken opponents of the government. With the defeat of Pai Marire supporters among Ngati Porou, his attitude became more pacific, but he could not prevent war from coming to Turanga. Warriors from Poverty Bay had joined the Hauhau forces fighting in Waiapu; Rukupo's protégé, Pita Tamaturi, was shot by Major R. N. Biggs near Pakairomiromi. The Poverty Bay tribes were now seen as hostile and government troops, including Ngati Porou, arrived in the area. Rukupo and other local leaders attempted to make peace with the government by offering to take the oath of allegiance. After a government ultimatum Rukupo pledged that 270 men from his district would surrender, but they did not follow him. In November troops marched on Waerenga-a-hika pa, which surrendered six days later after a battle in which 130 of its defenders were killed or wounded.
After the war Rukupo protested against the sending of Hauhau suspects to the Chatham Islands, and worked to limit land confiscation. In 1868 Te Kooti and his followers returned to Poverty Bay, and in November attacked Matawhero. Rukupo is reported to have met Te Kooti a few days later and to have been presented with a silver watch on a gold chain. The killing of Major Biggs during the attack on Matawhero has been seen as, in part, compensation for the death of Pita Tamaturi in 1865.
Raharuhi Rukupo's wife was named Marama. They had one son, Te Waaka Rongotu, who died before his father. Thus Rukupo had no direct descendants, although he had one adopted child, Otene Pitau. No photographs of Rukupo exist, but in the house Te Hau-ki-Turanga there is a carving made by him which is thought to represent either Rukupo himself or his elder brother, Tamati Waka Mangere.
Between 1865 and 1873 Rukupo made some of the carvings for the meeting house Te Mana-o-Turanga. This was his last major work. He is the most famous of the great carvers of the nineteenth century. The love of the art of carving was instilled in him by his elders who taught him traditional methods. With the arrival of the Pakeha, however, he abandoned the stone chisel and adze for steel implements. Thus he was a transitional figure in the development of Maori art. He left many treasures for future generations.
Rahuruhi Rukupo died on 29 September 1873. He was buried by Mohi Turei on 2 October beside the church at Manutuke. His last advice to his tribe was to repair the church, live near it, keep clear of debt and hold on to their land.