Robert Pānapa Tūtaki (also known as Tūtaki Pānapa Stewart and Robert Tūtaki Pānapa) was born probably in 1887 or 1888 at Ruahāpia on the outskirts of Hastings, the son of Arapera Te Ngaaero and her husband, Pānapa Tuari (Stewart), of Ngāi Toro-i-waho hapū, descended from both Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne. Bob Tūtaki was one of a large family. On leaving school he worked for the Post and Telegraph Department as an apprentice but soon followed his father into shearing. He quickly became an expert, and after shearing more than 330 sheep in a day received a bronze medallion from the company that manufactured the Wolseley shearing machine.
Tūtaki was strongly influenced by his father, who was an Anglican lay reader. Pānapa Tuari held evening prayer services in the sheds and exerted strong moral control over the Māori men and women in his gangs. Tūtaki was similarly influential when he himself became the shed boss. By the time he was 18 Tūtaki was a ringer (the fastest shearer in the shed). At the same age he joined the Wellington Shearers' Union, then in the process of formation. From that time he was a stalwart union member and organiser. In 1915 the shearers' union became part of the New Zealand Agricultural and Pastoral Workers' Union, which in turn became the New Zealand Workers' Union in 1919.
Tūtaki began his union activity as a shed representative, collecting dues from those he worked with. In 1908 he was involved in negotiating the path-breaking Wellington shearers' award that gave £1 per 100 sheep for the first time. He was undoubtedly present at the crucial meeting of Māori shearers in October 1909 that demanded representation in the union. As a result, the first Māori organiser was appointed and the union was subsequently careful to include Māori interests. In 1916 Tūtaki was very active in fighting to ensure that Māori gangs would not accept less than 25 shillings per 100 sheep.
During the First World War the shearers' union successfully raised wage rates. After the war, in the context of economic uncertainty, sheep owners in Hawke's Bay and other parts of the lower North Island attempted to break the New Zealand Workers' Union. In 1920 they financed a breakaway organisation, the Mataara Māori Shearers' Association. This body accepted wage cuts and attempted to entice Māori away from the Workers' Union through four organisers who travelled around the district offering free medical services to members.
The Workers' Union organiser soon obtained Tūtaki's assistance. Tūtaki was at that time shearing in a shed owned by the president of the Mataara Association, Keepa Winiata, but he was able to enrol the entire shed apart from the owner's daughters. Over the following two seasons he toured Hawke's Bay to counter the influence of the Mataara Association. He rode many thousands of miles on his motorcycle and in the process wore it out; the union gave him a new one, but declined his request for a Ford car. Tūtaki was instrumental in retaining the union's Māori membership and the Mataara Association seems to have gone out of existence after 1921.
Tūtaki had left shearing to work for the union during the season. In 1921 he was elected the area's representative and official seasonal organiser, positions he would hold almost continuously for nearly four decades. He was also on the union's executive council for many years and on its management committee. Having settled in Fernhill near Hastings, he was actively involved with the Fernhill School and the village committee, and was on the executive of Hawke's Bay's Tamatea Māori Council.
During the 1920s Tūtaki and other organisers held large meetings in district pa prior to shearing to ensure the adherence of local Māori. Tūtaki was also active in working to improve the often abysmal living conditions of Māori shearers; at the time many runholders did not provide proper sleeping quarters or adequate food.
From the mid 1920s, as the influence of the Rātana movement took hold, Tūtaki spoke out about its implicit anti-union message. T. W. Rātana argued that his movement would take care of all Māori needs and that Māori had no need to join a union. Tūtaki believed that the Workers' Union and the New Zealand Labour Party offered better chances of improvement. In 1928, at a time when few Māori supported the Labour Party, Tūtaki stood as its candidate for Eastern Māori against the sitting member, Sir Apirana Ngata. Labour leader Harry Holland addressed a large meeting of Māori at Fernhill. Although critical of Rātana, Tūtaki sought his support in the election, but Rātana put his weight behind his own candidate. Tūtaki, standing as T. P. Stewart, came a very distant third behind Ngata and the Rātana candidate, Pita Moko.
During the depression Tūtaki, like many others, disappeared from the union records as the union collapsed and a large proportion of its members had to resort to relief work. He became a union delegate and organiser again in 1936 and had a hand in the resurrection of the union. By 1937 Tūtaki was the Hawke's Bay organiser for the Labour Party's Māori Advisory Council. He claimed to be the sole Māori delegate at the 1937 National Industrial Conference, which formed the New Zealand Federation of Labour. In 1938 he organised a massive Māori ceremony at Mōteo pā to honour Arthur Cook, the powerful secretary of the union.
During the Second World War Tūtaki became a Māori recruiting officer (second lieutenant) for Hawke's Bay in addition to his union activities. He was also actively involved in manpowering Māori shearers for the war effort. For these services he was made an MBE in 1949.
Tūtaki's commitment to the Labour Party eventually transgressed the bounds of trade union solidarity. In 1947 he unwisely spoke out about the watersiders' confrontation with the Labour government. His view – as reported in the press – was that the Māori of Hawke's Bay and the East Coast would assist the government to break the strike by manning the wharves. The report precipitated his resignation as an officer of the union, and he was strongly admonished at the next annual conference before being grudgingly reinstated.
Tūtaki was married at Ōmāhu on 2 May 1950 to a widow, Tāniko Tāhau Hānara, also known as Tāniko Pāora. He was a widower by this stage but the details of any earlier marriages are not known. There may have been a son of a previous partnership.
Tūtaki kept his place in the union virtually until his death, by which time he was the union's oldest active member. In 1956 he was unable to attend the annual conference because of ill health and in 1957 he stood as usual but in unprecedented fashion was not elected as delegate. He was employed again for a short period during the season, but his health was not good and he indicated that he would not be able to take the road the following season. He died before then, on 27 September 1957 at Hastings, and was buried at Ōmāhu. His wife had died earlier that year.