Albert Oliphant Stewart, also known as Te Tawhero Stewart (Tuati) and Arapeta Tuati, was born in Whakatane on 16 July 1884, the son of Charles Edward Oliphant Stewart, a farmer, and his wife, Lily Agnes Tetawero, also called Awhiahua Hetaraka. His father was of Scottish and Ngati Pukeko of Ngati Awa descent, with connections to Ngati Mahuta of Waikato. His mother was of Ngati Pukeko and Te Whanau-a-Rutaia of Te Whanau-a-Apanui. His mother died when he was four, and after his father's remarriage in 1892 Albert was adopted by Hira Hotene, the chief of Ngati Hokopu, and his wife, Te Waipunohu. As a boy he was influenced by chiefs such as Hira, Te Hurinui Apanui, Merito Hetaraka, Te Keepa Tawhio, and many others.
Albert attended Poroporo Native School before going on a scholarship to St Stephen's Native Boys' School in Parnell, Auckland, for two years. He was then sent to Te Aute College in 1899. Like those of many other boys, his elders were very poor and he stayed at school during the holidays, growing food and hunting with his friends.
After matriculating he worked as a clerk in a Gisborne law office. On 14 September 1907, in Gisborne, he married Adeline Celia McKay; they were to have 11 children. Adeline's father was of Ngati Pukeko and Ngati Mahuta and her mother was descended from the chief of the Mahia district, Te Apatu-o-te-rangi. Albert had been raised a Catholic and Adeline an Anglican, but after their marriage she converted to Catholicism.
From 1908, when he became a licensed interpreter, Stewart returned frequently to Whakatane to help in the affairs of Ngati Awa. Around 1914 the family moved from Gisborne to Whakatane. Prior to this Apirana Ngata had offered Stewart a position in Wellington, but he had reluctantly declined because of family commitments.
Stewart is said to have acted as an interpreter in 1916 at Rua Kenana's trial in Auckland. In 1917 he entered local body politics as a member of the first Whakatane Borough Council. He was on the council until 1919. In 1923 he became the Maori representative on the Whakatane Harbour Board and served until 1931.
Stewart was a strong fighter for causes he believed in. He clashed with Bishop J. M. Liston when he shifted services from the carved Maori church at Te Whare-o-Toroa (Wairaka) to Piripai, two miles away. Stewart argued that the new location was too far from the Maori community, most of whose parishioners were elderly with no means of transport except by foot. However, his major battle was over Pohaturoa, a large rock sacred to Ngati Awa, which the borough council and chamber of commerce wanted removed from the centre of Whakatane in 1917. The rubble was to be used for roading and to fill in local mud-flats. Pohaturoa was where ceremonies of birth, death, war, tattooing and other important matters were performed. The karaka trees near its base are said to be the descendants of trees planted with seeds brought on the Mataatua canoe. It is also believed that Ngati Awa signed the Treaty of Waitangi there. Albert objected strongly to its removal and gathered the chiefs of the region to stand around the rock clad in their cloaks in protest against the proposal. Tiaki Rewiri spoke of the Maori claim to the rock. Stewart was a signatory to Gilbert Mair's petition to Parliament to save Pohaturoa. The council eventually decided to keep the rock, and it has since become an important place for public ceremonies.
Some years later Stewart assembled the chiefs in a similar protest and stopped a plan to shift the Maori village Te Whare-o-Toroa to Whakatane south, then a swamp. As a member of the harbour board, he objected to further attempts to have sacred rocks around the district blown up for commercial purposes. Despite his protests, Irakewa was destroyed, as was part of Toka a Taiaho, the anchor stone of the Mataatua canoe.
Stewart fought for the rights of Maori to retain their customary food, fishing, and shellfish gathering rights, especially when he thought they were being encroached upon by Pakeha and by legislation. He spent £2,000 of his own money fighting in the courts for the return of Ngati Awa land that had been confiscated by the Crown. The land was not returned to Ngati Awa until many years after his death.
Stewart was a member of the Mataatua Maori Council and was also elected chairman of the Ngati Awa tribal committee. During the 1940s and 1950s he was the Maori rate collector for the district. He kept the books for many areas of land under multiple ownership, making sure the owners paid their rates, and often paying them himself in cases of hardship in a bid to keep the lands in Maori hands.
His eloquence as a speaker of Maori and English was highly regarded in the Whakatane region. Whenever Ngati Awa chiefs from Ngati Hokopu spoke on the marae at public occasions, he was the interpreter. He also spoke at, and sometimes organised, important events in Whakatane including the centennial celebration in 1940 and the reception for the return of the local soldiers from the Second World War.
A keen sportsman, Stewart was prominent in establishing and administering various sports clubs in the Whakatane district; he encouraged Maori and Pakeha participation – which provoked some criticism from both sides. He was the founder and president of the Mataatua Lawn Tennis Association, a life member and patron of the Whakatane Rowing Club, captain of the Mokoroa Golf Club, and involved in the formation of the first Whakatane golf course at Apanui, he himself having a single-figure handicap. He was a fervent rugby supporter whose advice was often sought in the selection of Maori rugby teams. In 1908 he was elected the first president of the Whakatane rugby sub-union, and he held the position again in 1938. He became the Maori advisory board delegate to the Bay of Plenty Rugby Union in the early 1940s and was patron of the Whakatane United Rugby Football Club.
In 1927, for a small payment, Stewart acted as Te Rangihiroa, lieutenant of Te Kooti, in Rudall Hayward's movie The Te Kooti trail. In the Second World War he and his wife Adeline organised and performed Maori theatrical and operatic evenings to raise money for the war effort. They also spent many hours preparing dried food such as shellfish and whitebait for the men overseas, and they wrote letters of encouragement to every soldier from their tribal region. Six of their sons fought in the war and two lost their lives.
The preservation of Maori knowledge was important to Stewart. He was a member of the Whakatane and District Historical Society, and contributed papers on various aspects of the history of Ngati Awa and Mataatua districts. He also provided information for publications such as Tuwharetoa by John Grace. Albert Stewart died at Whakatane on 3 April 1958, survived by his wife, five sons and four daughters. His body lay in state at Wairaka marae and he was buried at Hillcrest cemetery, Whakatane.