Hōne Heke Rankin, also known as John Rankin, was born at Gisborne on 13 January 1896 to Matire Ngāpua of Ngāpuhi, and her husband, John Claudian (Claudius) Rankin, a Kaikohe storekeeper. Matire was the daughter of Niurangi Pūriri and Hōne Ngāpua, a nephew of Hōne Heke Pōkai, the Bay of Islands leader who signed the Treaty of Waitangi but later cut down the Kororareka flagstaff. Her brother, Hōne Heke Ngāpua, was MHR for Northern Māori from 1893 to 1911. Matire was working for a legal firm, Parr and Blomfield, in Auckland when she met John Rankin, an immigrant from Glasgow, Scotland, who was regarded as Kaikohe's legal expert. Hōne Heke had an elder brother, Hepi. Their father seems to have played little part in their life, although the boys had the advantage of speaking English and Māori. Hōne Heke’s main hapū was Te Matarahurahu, but he was also connected through senior lineage to Ngāti Rāhiri, Ngāi Tāwake, Ngāti Tautahi, Te Uri-o-Hua, and to most of the northern tribes.
Hōne Heke Rankin's skills as an orator on the marae and the position he eventually inherited suggest that he received a traditional Māori education. Later in life he called attention to his East Coast connections: he was kin through one line of descent to Ngāti Kahungunu and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and was related to Wī Pere, and said that he had stayed for years in the household of Apirana Ngata and had been educated at Waiomatatini. He had an enquiring mind and made the most of limited opportunities for self-improvement; in the 1930s he was to read the Bible – the only literature available to him – right through in Māori and English many times. Later in life he read voraciously, becoming something of a self-educated polymath.
On 13 December 1915 he enlisted in the army as a private; his occupation was listed as chauffeur. He embarked with the 11th Reinforcements and was posted to active service with the 2nd Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment in August 1916. He was wounded at the Somme the following month and evacuated to England. In February 1918 he joined the New Zealand Medical Corps. He was discharged in 1919. After the war he continued in medical work for nearly 10 years, working in the department of radiography of Auckland Hospital for a period, then moving to Rotorua.
Eventually Rankin returned to Northland, where he worked as foreman of a mercury mine at Ngāwhā, sometime between 1928 and 1934. Later he purchased land at Punakitere where he was to farm for 30 or more years. On ll March 1924 at Kaikohe he had married Hinuoriwa Te Pirihi Whiu of Ngāti Rangi, daughter of Maraea and Te Pirihi Whiu. There were three children of this marriage, but later the couple separated, Hinu returning to her people. About 1927 he met Parani Maihi of Ngāti Hau of Hokianga, and took her as a second wife in a customary marriage. She was of very high rank, a schoolteacher by profession, and well known for her oratorical skills. There were seven children of this union.
By the 1930s Hōne Heke Rankin was taking his place as a leader of his district, working on all the local projects, and often Parani was left to carry on the farm work assisted only by her older children. In 1936 Rankin was gazetted as a member of the Pēwhairangi Māori Council, a post he was to retain until at least 1945. In 1937 he received a coronation commemorative medal. He was also one of a number of Northland chiefs invited by Eru Pou to take part in a hui to discuss plans for the 1940 centennial celebrations. In 1939 he was on a list of Māori notables invited to take part in the planned joint Pākehā and Māori pageant. At the re-enactment of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi he played the role of his ancestor Hōne Heke Pōkai.
During the Second World War Rankin farmed his land. He was probably involved in the Māori War Effort Organisation, but assumed a more important role when he was appointed to the Rehabilitation Board in late 1944, possibly through his friendship with Prime Minister Peter Fraser. The board was responsible for the resettlement of returned servicemen, Pākehā and Māori, through trade and farm training, assistance with employment, housing loans and loans for farm settlement. In April 1945 the board appointed a finance committee, with Rankin as a member, to take special responsibility for Māori returned servicemen. It was to pursue an active policy of purchasing or leasing land from undeveloped tribal estates on which to settle them.
In August 1945 Rankin and others toured Māori localities inspecting progress; they clarified and standardised a number of administrative procedures. But in January 1946, when Rankin toured Northland with other members of the board, they reported many deficiencies: lack of information, bureaucratic delays and the scarcity of available tribal land meant that little had been done to settle qualified Māori farmers on land. Rankin and the others feared they would drift to urban work, wasting their training, if nothing was done. He was responsible for the frankness of the complaints the board received, as he had insisted they travel without the local Māori rehabilitation officer in order to allow 'a freer expression of opinion'. In March 1946 he was part of a similar delegation to the East Coast.
Rankin also contributed positively to rehabilitation in his local area. He played a crucial role in getting the Kaikohe Carpentry Training Centre established by March 1945, and at Punakitere he succeeded in getting a large block of land developed as a training farm for ex-service would-be farmers. The lands were of poor quality, being former gumfields, and this project succeeded only after many years when the right combination of fertilisers was discovered. In 1948 he wrote to the minister of rehabilitation, C. F. Skinner, of his 'deep concern that so few Māori ex-servicemen have benefitted from the existing policy of Rehabilitation Land Settlement’. He recommended a change in policy to facilitate the faster acquisition of land. He also asked for the appointment of an officer of the department to watch over the interests of Māori ex-servicemen who had been established in business, many of whom were failing because of lack of training in bookkeeping and accounting.
Rankin's letter caused a tremendous flurry in the Rehabilitation Department and sparked a major review of policy. In 1949 the under-secretary for Māori Affairs, Tipi Tainui Rōpiha, convened a conference on the topic, and in July 1949 the Rehabilitation Board decided to appoint an executive sub-committee of the finance committee with Rankin as a member. Rankin demanded that as one of only three Māori involved at the decision-making level, he should be party to all the finance committee’s subcommittees, and to all valuations, fixing of charges and reviews of farming operations of Māori ex-servicemen settled under the board's various schemes. Rankin succeeded in his demands, and continued in this work into the 1950s.
Rankin's work at the national level together with his rangatira status gave him a high profile in his local community, and he figured at many events. In 1947, when the Kaikohe hospital buildings were converted into a technical and agricultural high school (eventually known as Northland College), Rankin was the principal Māori speaker. He had strong support in the local Māori branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and in 1949 made a bid for the nomination of the Northern Māori seat, but the Rātana party had too firm a grasp to be easily dislodged.
Over the summer of 1953–54 the young Queen Elizabeth II and her consort, the duke of Edinburgh, toured New Zealand. Plans for Māori receptions were marked by controversy. On 28 December 1953 the royal couple visited Waitangi, which was added to the itinerary only after sustained protest by Māori at its original omission. Hōne Heke Rankin had been on the organising committee, and was among the official speakers. He abandoned the two-minute prepared speech that had been released to the media, and instead, spoke for four minutes on the Treaty of Waitangi as 'a statement of the historic and traditional rights of the Māori people’, claiming that it ‘is more than a legal document. It is a moral charter’. He declared his intention to escort the Queen and the duke of Edinburgh to Ngāruawāhia to meet his kinsman, the Māori King, Korokī. This was a brief visit the government had been shamed into adding to the itinerary. After this, Rankin declared, he and Korokī would accompany the royal party ‘to the portals of Te Arawa’. Rankin then reverted to the carefully scripted programme, and, investing S. G. Holland, the prime minister, with the title of 'Queen's guardian and protector', he presented him, for the duration of the royal visit, with Te Uira, the highly tapu mere of Hongi Hika.
True to his word, Rankin escorted the royal party to Ngāruawāhia on 30 December; when the party was challenged by the throwing down of a carved walking-stick at the gates of the marae, Rankin retrieved it, handing it to Holland who passed it to the Queen. But the controversy was not yet over. Rankin, with Pei Te Hurinui Jones, then escorted Korokī to Rotorua, and is said to have approached Te Arawa chiefs with the suggestion that Korokī be permitted to escort the Queen to the Arawa marae and royal dais. The request was angrily denied. Serious conflict was narrowly averted, and Rankin's words were deemed to have been sufficiently fulfilled in that Korokī stayed at Te Ruatō, Rotoiti, not far from the Queen herself.
Rankin continued to be prominent during his last decade. He again played a major role in the 1963 reception for the Queen at Waitangi, though the organisers did not trust the man 'who would not bow to officialdom' to speak. He was made a member of the Te Tii and the Tai Tokerau trust boards and was appointed an OBE; he was also a justice of the peace. Shortly before his death the Tūmatauenga meeting house was opened at Ōtīria by the governor general; Rankin had given it its name and played a large part in the organisation of its building.
Hōne Heke Rankin died at Whāngārei Public Hospital on 16 April 1964, survived by his second wife and 10 children. On the way home, his body lay in state on the Ōtīria marae, followed by some hours at Ngāwhā, finally lying at Te Kotahitanga marae, Kaikohe. He was buried at Kaikohe on 19 April, next to his uncle, Hōne Heke Ngāpua.