Raharuhi Rukupō of Rongowhakaata is said to have been born at Ōrākaiapu pā, Manutūkē, in Poverty Bay, at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He was the second son of Te Pohepohe (also known as Pītau) of Ngāti Maru, and Hinekoua of Ngāti Kaipoho. He also belonged to Ngāi Tāmanuhiri.
As a child Rukupō was adopted by his maternal aunt, the sister of Hinekoua. According to one account of his life, they visited their Te Whakatōhea relatives and their kin in the Waiapu valley and in the north, and as he grew older Rukupō fought in his people's wars in Taranaki and elsewhere. He is said to have been one of the great carvers who fashioned Kaitāngata, the house of Te Rangihaeata of Ngāti Toa, on Mana Island. Some traditions state that he lived for a time in the north with Ngāti Wai.
When Rukupō heard that his elder brother, Tāmati Wāka Māngere, the great chief of Ngāti 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 Tūranga (Gisborne).
Rukupō is thought to have been one of the carvers, with Te Waaka Perohuka, of the decorative work on the war canoe Te Toki-a-Tāpiri, which is now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. It is said that Rukupō carved the stern-post and Perohuka the prow. Both were in the canoe when it joined the war fleet led by Paratene Tūrangi against Ngāti Porou in 1843.
In 1842 Rukupō began the house Te Hau-ki-Tūranga as a memorial to his elder brother. Te Hau-ki-Tūranga was the embodiment of the spirit which drove him after his brother's death, and a symbol through which Rukupō inspired his people. It, too, is the house which brought him widespread fame. Eighteen expert carvers from the Tūranga school, including his younger brother Pera Tawhiti, worked on the house. An example of Rukupō's expertise can be seen in the carved posts and the construction of the house.
Te Hau-ki-Tūranga 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 Tūranga lands following the battle of Waerenga a Hika. Token sums were paid to some local Māori (who were later found not to be the owners), but Richmond regarded the building as having been essentially seized as a war trophy. Te Hau-ki-Tūranga 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 Rukupō was among the carvers of a new church at Manutūkē, 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, Rukupō mediated. A new, less representational pattern was developed by the carvers, and carried over into the kōwhaiwhai designs in the church. This was one of the first experiments in the style of figurative kōwhaiwhai known as Te Pītau-a-Manaia. The church was eventually opened, although incomplete, in 1863.
Rukupō befriended the missionaries when they first came to Tūranga, 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 Pākehā 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 kūmara and wheat, and provided the millstones for a mill at Tūranga which Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki helped to build.
In March 1865 Pai Mārire missionaries arrived in Poverty Bay. Their presence was not opposed by Rukupō and other Māori leaders, who assured the European settlers of their safety. Rukupō became a convert to Pai Mārire and for a time was one of the most outspoken opponents of the government. With the defeat of Pai Mārire supporters among Ngāti Porou, his attitude became more pacific, but he could not prevent war from coming to Tūranga. Warriors from Poverty Bay had joined the Hauhau forces fighting in Waiapu; Rukupō's protégé, Pita Tamaturi, was shot by Major R. N. Biggs near Pākairomiromi. The Poverty Bay tribes were now seen as hostile and government troops, including Ngāti Porou, arrived in the area. Rukupō and other local leaders attempted to make peace with the government by offering to take the oath of allegiance. After a government ultimatum Rukupō pledged that 270 men from his district would surrender, but they did not follow him. In November troops marched on Waerenga-a-hika pā, which surrendered six days later after a battle in which 130 of its defenders were killed or wounded.
After the war Rukupō 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. Rukupō 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 Rukupō's wife was named Mārama. They had one son, Te Waaka Rongotū, who died before his father. Thus Rukupō had no direct descendants, although he had one adopted child, Ōtene Pītau. No photographs of Rukupō exist, but in the house Te Hau-ki-Tūranga there is a carving made by him which is thought to represent either Rukupō himself or his elder brother, Tāmati Wāka Māngere.
Between 1865 and 1873 Rukupō made some of the carvings for the meeting house Te Mana-o-Tūranga. 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 Pākehā, however, he abandoned the stone chisel and adze for steel implements. Thus he was a transitional figure in the development of Māori art. He left many treasures for future generations.
Rahuruhi Rukupō died on 29 September 1873. He was buried by Mohi Tūrei on 2 October beside the church at Manutūkē. His last advice to his tribe was to repair the church, live near it, keep clear of debt and hold on to their land.