Hone Taare Tikao told the historian Herries Beattie that he was born on Banks Peninsula in or about 1850, just two years after the Crown purchase of Canterbury from Ngai Tahu, and within months of the arrival of the first Pakeha settlers in Canterbury. Tikao claimed descent from 21 Ngai Tahu hapu but was principally of Ngai Tuahuriri and Ngati Irakehu descent. He identified most strongly with Ngati Irakehu, a hapu which had connections in southern Wairarapa.
The Banks Peninsula region into which he was born had been savaged by musket-armed Ngati Toa in the late 1820s and shocked by the Elizabeth incident of 1830, in which the leader Tama-i-hara-nui had been kidnapped and subsequently killed. Tikao's father, Tamati Tikao, and his uncle Hone (John) Tikao had both been taken to the North Island as captives. After his release Hone worked as a sailor on a whaling ship and travelled extensively. As John Love he signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Akaroa in 1840, and he was also a signatory to the sale of Canterbury in 1848. Tamati spent some years at Wairau, where he came into contact with missionary teachings. As well as acquiring literacy, he became a Christian and an advocate of the changes the new religion had brought.
On his eventual return to Banks Peninsula Tamati settled at Wairewa (Lake Forsyth). He married Rahera, and Hone Taare Tikao (sometimes called Teone Taare Tikao or John Charles Tikao) was born there. Tamati established a Maori school at Wairewa. His brother Hone settled at Wakaroa (Pigeon Bay). At Wairewa Hone Taare Tikao helped his father farm, and worked for Pakeha settlers. He moved away at the time of his first marriage, to Maraea Tihau (also known as Toitoi), a close relative, at St Peter's Church, Akaroa, on 22 June 1878. They settled at Wainui, where Tikao lived until he was in his early 30s.
After the death of his wife and the two children of that marriage, he married Martha Hana Toku Horomona (Hannah Solomon-Score) of Koukourarata (Port Levy), and they went to live on her family lands there. They were to have 14 children, six of whom died young. In the mid 1880s he moved his family to Rapaki so that the children could attend the school established by the Ngati Kahungunu Wesleyan missionary, Te Koti Te Rato.
At an early age Hone Taare Tikao had been consigned by his father to the care of two noted tribal scholars of Ngai Tahu, Koroko and Tuauau, for nearly 10 years. This laid the foundations of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ngai Tahu natural lore and history pertaining to the Canterbury area. (In later life Tikao disavowed any competence in the traditional history of southern Ngai Tahu.)
His extensive exposure to two of the most learned men of the tribe, and parental support for learning English and writing skills, were to produce a formidable and well-equipped intellect. He became an informant of James Cowan, J. W. Stack and Herries Beattie, who recorded and published Ngai Tahu history and traditional information. Tikao's grasp of English and his generous approach to the sharing of knowledge led him into easy contact with prominent Canterbury Pakeha, and he frequently delivered addresses on Maori tradition and hosted Pakeha groups at Rapaki or Koukourarata.
Remembering from his youth carved whare at Akaroa and other Ngai Tahu centres on the peninsula, Tikao devoted considerable effort to the construction of new tribal buildings. He played a major part in the building of the church at Onuku (The Kaik), and led the building projects which established the houses Tutehuarewa (at Koukourarata) and Te Wheke (at Rapaki). Tikao was subsequently to become the leader of the Rapaki community.
Biculturally competent leaders who were able to manage the relationships with the rapidly expanding Pakeha world were in high demand, and Tikao's skills marked him for recognition. Ngai Tahu claims, seeking remedies for the Crown's conduct of the South Island land purchases, had begun in 1849 and were gathering momentum in the period when Tikao was emerging as a leader. He was involved in the claims alongside older leaders. He was particularly involved in Ngai Tahu arguments over the reservation of mahinga kai – areas where food had traditionally been produced or gathered. His knowledge of natural lore was invaluable, and he recorded further information from the elders with whom he associated. Tikao was in demand as a scribe, frequently drafting correspondence with the Crown.
When Ngai Tahu became involved with Te Kotahitanga, the movement for an independent Maori parliament, Tikao led Ngai Tahu representatives at the assembly at Waipatu, Hawke's Bay, in 1892. He was chairman of the Great Council in 1893, and also Speaker for a period. He took a moderate line in the parliament's deliberations, along with Henare Tomoana and others. Tikao became a major figure in the reorganisation of Ngai Tahu through the Mahunui Maori Council and was, for a period, its adviser.
Through Te Kotahitanga, Tikao became involved with some of the leading Maori of the day. He also had extended contact with the scholars and scribes Nepia Pohuhu and Hoani Te Whatahoro Jury. Te Whatahoro, with whom Tikao shared his knowledge of Maori custom and tradition, had recorded much of the knowledge of Te Matorohanga. It may be that Tikao developed his views about Io as the supreme being through contact with his teaching.
Hana Tikao died in 1924. Hone Taare Tikao died on 11 June 1927 at Rapaki, survived by five daughters and three sons.