Pepene Eketone was born probably in 1855 or 1856, possibly in the Mokau district of north Taranaki. His parents were Hone Eketone and Hera Mahina, both of Ngati Maniapoto. Pepene Eketone was of Ngati Uekaha and various other Ngati Maniapoto hapu. Occasionally, he used the English form of his name, Fairburn Eggleston (Eccleston), which was derived from the names of Pakeha missionaries. On 21 March 1878 in Auckland he married Mary Barton (Mere Patene), usually known as Mamae; she was possibly of Ngati Pou. They had three surviving children: Anaru (Andrew), the eldest, and two daughters, Merepaea and Hana. He had two subsequent marriages, to Te Aorangi Wetere and Te Waiata Wetere; both were childless.
Pepene must have received some bilingual schooling, as by the mid 1880s he had launched himself on a successful career as a licensed native agent and licensed interpreter. Based in Otorohanga, and later in Te Kuiti, he attended courts throughout the Waikato–Maniapoto circuit. His first major battles were associated with the huge Rohe Potae block claimed by Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Hikairo, Ngati Tuwharetoa and the Whanganui tribes; its borders were disputed with Tainui, Te Arawa and others. The hearing began in 1886 and was completed in April 1888, but years of work remained to determine the major and minor subdivisions. Pepene often represented his own kin. Sometimes representing groups of nine or more Ngati Maniapoto hapu, Pepene conducted their cases, very often successfully. His own name and those of his children appeared in the lists of owners of various blocks.
In 1889 Pepene Eketone was described as the 'very clever conductor' of Hitiri Te Paerata's case in the contentious Taupo-nui-a-Tia block. His forte was negotiating deals outside the court, and persisting through tedious months of effort to gain the consent of important leaders like Wahanui Huatare, Tangitehau Te Kanawa and Taonui Hikaka. However, Pepene always seemed to know when persistence would not pay off; he would state the grounds of disagreement with clarity and seem to leave the decision to the court – a negotiating tactic which often produced the desired result.
Pepene's expertise was recognised when he was made an assessor of the Native Land Court; in 1891 and 1892 he worked in that capacity during the rehearings of the long disputed Omahu case in Hawke's Bay. In March 1891 he formally opened the meeting at Cambridge between Waikato–Maniapoto Maori and the Native Land Laws Commission and the Native Land Court. He praised the government for setting up the commission, but criticised its imposition of Crown pre-emption over the Rohe Potae block, a move made to facilitate the purchase of land for construction of the main trunk railway; pre-emption prevented the owners getting market value for their lands. Speaking on behalf of the chiefs, Pepene objected to legislation that discriminated against Maori, requiring them to pay heavier land transfer duties than Europeans in order to recover some of the costs of the Native Land Court. He objected to sections of the Native Land Court Act 1886 Amendment Act 1888 which permitted the court to make subdivisions of large blocks without the consent of the owners, on the grounds that the survey and other costs resulting from subdivision meant that little financial benefit resulted for the sellers. He asked that Maori should be informed about the rating process so that they were not confronted with large bills without warning, and that they should be represented on county councils. He did not see how the Native Land Court could be replaced, but felt that the high fees prohibited fair hearings; people with good claims were excluded by poverty.
Pepene Eketone was also deeply involved in Maori politics, stressing Maori self-determination and respect for the Maori King. In 1887 he made his first attempt to gain the Western Maori parliamentary seat, but Hoani Taipua won comfortably. In later years Pepene often stood for the electorate but it passed from Ngati Raukawa to the Maori King's successive nominees. Pepene was an outsider, supported mainly by Ngati Maniapoto.
In the inter-Maori debates in 1898 over Premier Richard Seddon's proposed Maori councils and native land boards, Pepene was firmly on the side of those who rejected Seddon's paternalistic plans, demanding Maori autonomy. However, like many King movement followers prepared to test the new scheme, in 1902 Pepene himself accepted a position on the Hikairo–Maniapoto–Tuwharetoa District Maori Land Council. However, by 1905 he was dissatisfied with the degree of government control over these councils. In 1904, in preparation for a petition for changes to the Maori Lands Administration acts, Pepene and John Ormsby, assisted by Wahanui Huatare and other Ngati Maniapoto, published Ko te kawenata o Ngati Maniapoto me ona hapu maha (the covenant of Ngati Maniapoto with all its hapu), an elaborate genealogy of Ngati Maniapoto together with lists of personal names, hapu names and villages. It was probably an attempt to list all those represented by the council. In April and May 1905 Ngati Maniapoto organised meetings, and a petition drafted by Pepene and others was presented to the government. Pepene Eketone and Tureiti Te Heuheu were questioned at length before the Native Affairs Committee. Pepene's main plea was that Maori should be treated as responsible people.
Meanwhile his career as an agent continued. In 1907 he represented the Maori of Mokau before the Stout–Ngata commission of inquiry into Maori land. Pepene informed the commission that the Mokau–Mohakatino lands leased by Joshua Jones for 56 years from 1882 (a matter of great controversy provoking a royal commission in 1888), were still undeveloped. He claimed that had the lands been under Maori management there would have been a demand for them to be utilised, a claim that the commissioners regarded as naïve.
His dissatisfaction with the government's paternalism in its administration of Maori lands inclined Pepene Eketone to support Tupu Taingakawa's faction of the King movement. Taingakawa was the leader of those who rejected any compromise with the colonial government, holding to the movement's ideal of an independent Maori kingdom limited only by its acknowledgement of the authority of the British Crown. Pepene became a member of Taingakawa's revamped Kotahitanga or federation of the Maori tribes of the North and South Islands. Nevertheless, in 1909 he stood, again unsuccessfully, for Western Maori. In 1910 Pepene, together with his son, Anaru, by now following his father's politics and his career as an interpreter, took part in a conference of Taingakawa's federation at Waharoa; his contributions to it were essentially practical, designed to ensure that its proceedings were businesslike.
For a time Ngati Maniapoto had a series of annual political hui at Te Kuiti, all attended – and probably organised – by Pepene. At the September 1911 conference Pepene was elected to a national Maori committee including Apirana Ngata, Maui Pomare, Hoani Paraone Tunuiarangi and others, who were to present a plan to the Maori King, Mahuta Te Wherowhero, and Native Minister James Carroll, for ways to support and maintain the mana of the Maori people. Later the same month Pepene attended a hui of the Iharaira (Israelite) movement at Kaiwhaiki on the Whanganui River. It was announced that the Western Maori parliamentary candidates for that year included Pepene, Henare Kaihau and others, but that the movement would support Maui Pomare. Waikato–Maniapoto were asked, in the interests of their unity, to unite behind either Pepene or Kaihau.
They did not unite. In December Pepene campaigned through the Maori newspaper Te Mareikura. His theme was Maori autonomy and support of the Maori King. He saw the role of the Maori MP as a trustee of Maoritanga, a block against land legislation prejudicial to Maori, and a guard against breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. A long list of Ngati Maniapoto leaders supported his campaign. Had Waikato not decided in favour of Pomare, a battle would have developed between Kaihau and Pepene, as their support was equal. In the event he came third.
In November 1912 politics were put aside while Pepene, assisted by Anaru, organised Mahuta's tangihanga. By this time, perhaps because of his strong showing in the election, Pepene's position as a leader of Ngati Maniapoto was unassailable. He continued to take part in Taingakawa's Kotahitanga, and with him, from 1920, turned to Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana to further his aims. In 1924 he was one of the 12 leaders who accompanied Tupu Taingakawa and Ratana to England, carrying with them a petition to present to the Crown.
From 1925 Pepene's main contribution to both movements was as head of the Ratana organisation on its business side and his direction of the Ratana bank. The organisation had set up an investment society, called the Savings Bank of the United Maori Welfare League of the Northern, Southern and Chatham Islands, in its efforts to force the government to provide for Maori welfare. These efforts failed in the short term, the land on which the Ratana temple stood being heavily mortgaged with the interest unpaid. In October 1927 Pepene and others met the prime minister, Gordon Coates, and requested financial help from the Maori Purposes Fund Control Board to allow improvements to Ratana pa and to provide both ordinary and technical schools there. The request was declined.
The bank, too, was a failure. By February 1928 Pepene and the other members of the executive were denying its existence, claiming that all deposits were contributions to the upkeep of Ratana pa. Ngata wished, nevertheless, to recruit Pepene into his land development schemes, because he hoped that with Pepene gone the Ratana–Kotahitanga executive would collapse. By 1930 Ngata regarded Pepene as an obstacle to his land development schemes at Mahoenui, where Pepene was now based, but after 1931 he considered that he was providing the essential element of leadership there.
Pepene was instrumental in having the anchor stone of the Tainui canoe returned from New Plymouth to the Mokau River. Active into his old age, he had a last fling at the Western Maori seat in 1931, standing as a Ratana candidate with the backing of Mahuta's cousin Piupiu Te Wherowhero. This attempt provoked contention within the royal family. Pepene Eketone died at Mahoenui on 9 November 1933, survived by two daughters.