Kepa Hāmuera Ānaha Ehau was born on 5 November 1885 at Ōtewā, a small community south-east of Ōtorohanga in the King Country. At the time of Kepa’s birth Te Kooti and his Ringatū followers were living at Ōtewā. They included Kepa’s father, Ehau Puka Ānaha of Ngāti Tarāwhai, and his mother, Te Kirikauri of Ngāti Hurungaterangi. Te Kirikauri was of Ngāti Whakaue, descended from Hurunga Te Rangi to Pango Ngāwene, a Te Arawa tohunga, to her father Poniwahio Pango. Ehau Puka Ānaha was descended from Te Rangitakaroro and his first wife, Rangipare. He was the son of Ānaha Kepa Te Rahui, the noted Ngāti Tarāwhai leader and carver. Soon after his birth Kepa was baptised into the Ringatū faith by Te Kooti and given the name Te Ngarara a Te Kooti.
Early in his life Kepa was sent to live in the Whanganui area, where he stayed for about nine years. While there the Metekīngi family gave him the name Taitoko Te Rangihiwinui in memory of their ancestor Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui (Major Kemp). Kepa’s primary education was completed at St Stephen’s Native Boys’ School in Auckland, where he was a keen student of English and memorised much poetry. He attended secondary school at Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay. On leaving college Kepa took up employment as a law clerk with a solicitor in Rotorua. In 1906 he qualified as a licensed interpreter.
On 2 April 1908 at Rotorua Kepa married Wikitōria Ngāhirapu Ārama Karaka of Ngāti Tūteniu (a hapū of Ngāti Rangiteaorere of Te Arawa) and Ngāti Rauhoto (of Ngāti Tuwharetoa and Ngāti Raukawa). Ten children were born of this marriage, two dying at a very early age. Ngāhirapu was a woman of strong character and high moral values. She was descended from a powerful rangatira, Īhakara Kahuao of Ngāti Rauhoto, who was an ally and fighting chief of Te Rauparaha. Her father, Ārama Karaka Hutuha, fought in the campaign against Te Kooti with the Te Arawa contingent. She died in 1947.
At the age of 29 and with a family of four, Kepa enlisted in the army on 17 June 1915 to fight in the First World War. He sailed with the Second Māori Contingent on 19 September 1915 and saw service in Egypt, and then in France with the New Zealand Pioneer Battalion and attained the rank of lieutenant. He was invalided to England in December 1916 and rejoined his unit in June 1917. On 4 August at Basseville (Bassevelde), Flanders, he was severely wounded in both legs under heavy shell fire. He was evacuated to New Zealand in December. During his overseas service Kepa learnt to speak fluent French and later added German and Italian.
On his return to civilian life and for the next half century Kepa assumed a strong leadership role among Te Arawa. Through his early life he gained from his tribal elders a vast knowledge of Māori tradition, ceremonial and whakapapa. Kepa was frequently consulted by leaders such as Apirana Ngata, who considered him to be one of the finest Māori interpreters in the country. He contributed material to Ngata’s collection of waiata, Ngā moteatea.
Kepa, like his grandfather Ānaha Te Rāhui, set down a strong body of tribal history and whakapapa in the course of Te Arawa Native Land Court hearings. Knowledge of Kepa’s expertise prompted numerous requests from outside of Te Arawa, notably from Waikato, Hauraki and Tauranga people, to represent them in Māori land matters. He was an authority on Māori land title, combining a knowledge of tradition with an understanding of land law. Kepa took advantage of visits to other tribal areas to cement relationships with many of the dynamic figures of the period. Among those were Pei Te Hurinui Jones of Ngāti Maniapoto, King Korokī, Turi Carroll and Apirana Ngata.
For many years Kepa negotiated for Te Arawa with the Crown over the future of the lakes and Māori land within the Rotorua area. He was the main instigator of a move to have Lake Okataina and the surrounding Ngāti Tarāwhai lands gifted as a scenic reserve in 1921. In 1924 he was appointed a foundation member of the Arawa District Trust Board (later Te Arawa Māori Trust Board), a position he held for 23 years.
Kepa had been involved in raising money for the Māori Soldiers’ Fund at Ōhinemutu in 1918, and was a founder member of the Te Arawa Māori Returned Services League. In 1938 he went with the troops representing New Zealand at the Anzac Day commemorations in Sydney, and in 1939 he helped organise the first dawn parade in Rotorua. At the outbreak of the Second World War Kepa advocated the formation of a fighting Māori battalion, led by Māori officers.
Best remembered for his power of oratory, for at least half a century Kepa was the person who welcomed royalty or famous personages to Te Arawa territory on public occasions, either on his own behalf or as an interpreter for rangatira who spoke no English. He claimed to have wakened the duke of Cornwall and York at Rotorua’s Grand Hotel in 1901 by playing reveille at sunrise. Kepa welcomed Field Marshall Viscount Montgomery to Rotorua during his tour of New Zealand after the Second World War and in 1954 the young Queen Elizabeth II. His coronation address to her had been broadcast nationally in 1953.
His English in oratory was stately and ornamented. He had memorised verses of Shakespeare and other poets, and would translate them into Māori to include in his orations. He surprised Europeans on occasion by giving a French translation of the Māori rather than an English one.
Despite the amputation of both legs in later life as a result of his war injuries, he remained a figure of authority at Māori hui, speaking in a strong, rich voice from his wheelchair. On one famous occasion during a dispute between Tūhoe and Te Arawa over the naming of the dining-hall Te Aroha-o-Te Arawa at Mataatua marae in Rotorua, he drove his wheelchair between the two factions and berated them for their quarrel.
Many of his speeches, in Māori and in English, were learnt by heart by Māori who admired his oratory. One such oration, first given at the funeral of a returned soldier about 1937, is still quoted today. It includes the words: ‘On the pillow that slips not and the bed that moves not you sleep the sleep pre-ordained, predestined, the inevitable destiny of mortal man…Hawaiki-nui, Hawaiki-roa, Hawaiki-pāmamao farewell you as you wend your way to Te Hono-i-wairua, the meeting place of departed souls’.
Kepa Ehau died at his home in Ōhinemutu on 10 February 1970 at the age of 84. His tangihanga over three days was attended by representatives of all the major tribes of Aotearoa who paid tribute to one of the greatest Māori orators of modern times. He was buried alongside his wife and other members of his family in Kauae cemetery on the lower slopes of Mt Ngongotahā.