Kirihi Te Riri Maihi Kawiti was born, according to family information, on 17 April 1877 at Waiomio, Kawakawa, in the Bay of Islands. He was the second son of Maihi Paraone Kawiti and his third wife, Heningarino, and the grandson of Te Ruki Kawiti, the Nga Puhi warrior chief. Kirihi was a baptismal name; his full birth name was Te Riri-whakamutunga-a-Kawiti-ki-te-Ruapekapeka, which commemorated the declaration made by Te Ruki Kawiti that his role as warlord of the north had ceased after the battle of Ruapekapeka.
Te Riri had two brothers, Ranga and Huru, and three sisters, Hui, Te Warati and Te Here. He also had an elder half-brother, Hirini, and a younger half-sister, Mate. Educated at Karetu Native School and then Poroti Native School in the Whangarei district, he returned home to Waiomio in 1889 when his father, Maihi, died. Some years after the death of Maihi's nephew and appointed successor, Hoterene Kawiti, Te Riri assumed the leadership of Ngati Hine.
As a young man Te Riri became a farmer and resided on land by the Waiomio Caves. At that time no other Ngati Hine people wanted to live on the property, because the land was tapu and the surrounding hills were riddled with burial caves, about which frightening stories were told. Te Riri felt obliged to live there as a guardian because it was ancestral land and the Ngati Hine ancestor Hineamaru lay in a secret cave, surrounded by her warriors, somewhere on the property.
Te Riri married Marara Mahanga, of Ngati Hine and Ngati Korora descent, in 1896; they had a daughter, Ngaone, and a son, Te Tawai (Tawai Riri Maihi Kawiti). After her death he married Hana Te Ahuahu (Moe Tana) of Ngati Kopaki hapu of Ngati Hine at Waiomio on 19 May 1915. There was one daughter of the marriage, Te Ringi Taimana (diamond ring). Moe Tana died in 1918, and on 5 June 1933 at Waiomio, Te Riri married Totorewa Hoterene of Te Orewai hapu of Ngati Hine; a son of this union died soon after birth.
Te Riri's chiefly status was reflected in official appointments. In 1904 he was elected chairman of the block committee to investigate Maori land titles in the Kaikohe district. He became a member of the Pewhairangi Maori Council in 1924, and the same year was elected chairman of the Waiomio Village Committee. He took responsibility for the welfare and health of his people in the Bay of Islands district, speaking out against the consumption of liquor and supporting education. In 1909 he asked the Department of Education to build new schools at Orauta and Waiomio; these schools opened within a few years. Both Anglican and Methodist churches received his support and he was an honorary Methodist home missionary from 1927 until 1942, when he was succeeded by his son, Te Tawai.
Te Riri's life was strongly influenced by the memory of his grandfather, Te Ruki Kawiti, whose defiance of British authority and participation in the northern war of 1845–46 was still unfavourably interpreted by some. His brothers Ranga and Huru were concerned that their descendants would be burdened by this legacy, and in 1909 dropped the name Kawiti in favour of their father's name, Paraone (Brown). Some descendants later adopted another of his names, Maihi (Marsh). Te Riri alone continued to carry the Kawiti name, and passed it on to his descendants.
In his speeches, which were renowned for their eloquence, Te Riri often recalled the sayings of his grandfather. During the First World War he publicly opposed the conscription of Nga Puhi men, referring to Te Ruki Kawiti's declaration of peace after the war at Ruapekapeka. He did not, however, oppose any Maori who volunteered for service, and he was involved in patriotic activities. During the Second World War he was to reiterate his anti-conscription stand. Again, however, he supported the war effort as chairman of the local Maori patriotic committee from 1941 to 1945. For his patriotic services in both wars he was made an OBE in 1949.
From the 1930s a wider appreciation of the historical significance of events of the 1840s began to emerge. As grandson of Te Ruki Kawiti, the principal ally of Hone Heke, Te Riri unveiled a brass tablet at the flagstaff at Russell on 9 April 1930. Tau Henare, MP, and F. O. V. Acheson, judge of the Native Land Court, were among those in attendance. He represented four principal leaders of Nga Puhi – Te Ruki Kawiti, Hone Heke, Pomare II and Tamati Waka Nene – on the Waitangi National Trust Board, from 1932. He gave much practical assistance to restoring the Waitangi Treaty House and constructing the adjacent meeting house. A team of men under his direction worked in the Motatau bush to split kauri shingles for repair work on the treaty house, and in addition kauri and totara were supplied for the meeting house construction. Support from Tau Henare, and the local hapu Ngati Te Tarawa and Ngati Hine, made it possible for the house to be completed to schedule.
In 1939 Te Riri was elected chairman of the Waitangi centennial celebration committee by representatives of Nga Puhi, Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngati Kahu and Ngati Whatua. The question arose as to whether the planned major hui and opening of the meeting house should go ahead or be deferred until after the war. Te Riri was adamant that the opening should proceed as planned so that the elders and the young men about to depart for overseas service (perhaps not to return) could take part. The centennial celebrations and the opening of the meeting house took place on 6 February 1940; in a re-enactment of the signing of the treaty, Te Riri took the role of his grandfather. Afterwards Te Riri moved that two new canoes made for the celebrations be given into the care of the Waitangi National Trust Board to be used in Waitangi Day celebrations; the large canoe Nga-toki-mata-whao-rua was accepted on those terms.
In 1940 Te Riri was injured in a fall and was forced to retire from farming, so he turned to writing. He kept a diary of the Kawiti family for years and completed a tribal history. He was widely consulted for his knowledge of genealogy and traditional history. He was also consulted by the Ministry of Works when a new road was being constructed over the burial ground at Te Haumi in 1949. All work came to a halt to allow the transfer of the remains to another site. Te Riri ensured that the burial ground was clear before the road works continued to Paihia. Te Riri was by this time a senior chief of considerable influence. A justice of the peace, in 1956 he was present at the first meeting of the Tai Tokerau Maori Trust Board; his son Te Tawai was elected secretary.
In his last years, Te Riri took a close interest in the younger generation. He was a prominent supporter of the New Zealand Maori Lawn Tennis Association, and presented a tennis trophy to Ngati Hine youth for Saturday competition challenges. The trophy was much prized in the 1940s and 1950s, then went missing until 1995 when Te Kapotai of Waikare and Ngati Manu of Karetu commenced the challenges again. Te Riri was fair but strict with his grandchildren, who were expected to work hard when they stayed with him. The sound of his slippered foot dragging along the floor warned them he was approaching and that they had better get on with their tasks.
He died in his home on 20 February 1964 survived by his third wife and three children. The Tumatauenga meeting house at Otiria marae was completed in time for his tangihanga. At his burial a historic cannon, which had belonged to his grandfather and which was traditionally used for a farewell salute, was fired for the last time. Te Riri Maihi Kawiti lies buried in the Wairere cemetery at Waiomio, Kawakawa.