Tributes began to flow last night for Labour MP Parekura Horomia, who died yesterday surrounded by family at his Mangatuna home.
It is understood the 62-year-old Ikaroa Rawhiti MP had been unwell for some time, and family members had travelled from overseas to be with him.
Ex-Labour MP Stuart Nash, who worked closely with Mr Horomia, called him a great man, a great MP and a wonderful ambassador for Maori.
"He stood up for Maori up and down the coast. He always had their best interests at heart. He was larger than life in all ways and a great friend."
Mr Nash emphasised Mr Horomia's amazing work ethic and said he will be sorely missed up and down the country.
"I had an office beside him when I was in Parliament, he was always willing to share a yarn and he truly knew everyone. It's a huge loss to Maoridom and a huge loss to the Labour party," Mr Nash said.
Ngati Kahungunu Iwi chairman Ngahiwi Tomoana also spoke of Mr Horomia's work ethic and called him "his best mate".
"Parekura was a giant of a man with a gigantic heart but it couldn't cope with the punishing workload he imposed on himself in the service of his people. He was working right up to his death visiting whanau from Wainuiomata to Wairoa over the weekend on his way home on his last legs," Mr Tomoana said.
He described a man who would never miss a birthday, a wedding or a tangi and would turn up in the most unexpected places.
"He spent a lot of his early life managing farms around Dannevirke so he knew every nook and cranny in Ngati Kahungunu. He used this to great effect in his political career never taking anything or anyone for granted. He worked tirelessly and selflessly for everyone great and small," Mr Tomoana said.
He was in Auckland when he heard the news and said "a floor in my heart fell out". He said Ngati Kahungunu will make a pilgrimage to Hauiti Marae on Wednesday leaving at 3am from Kohupatiki Marae.
John Key issued a statement last night in which he praised the "tireless work Parekura did for Maori".
"I am thinking of his whanau at this very sad time. It is difficult to grieve privately when your father, grandfather, brother or uncle was a very public figure," Mr Key said.
"The Horomia family will take comfort in the achievements of a life well lived and know that he made a difference in the lives of many."
His family issued a statement yesterday requesting privacy: "The whanau of Honourable Parekura Horomia is very humbled by all the love, support and kind wishes for their grandfather, father, brother and uncle."
Mr Horomia entered Parliament in 1999 after winning the Ikaroa-Rawhiti seat, which covers much of the East Coast, and was made Associate Minister of Maori Affairs and Education. Less than a year later he rocketed up the ranks to Maori Affairs Minister, a position he held until 2008.
Mr Horomia also represented the East Coast in rugby and remained a keen supporter of the game. He played in the parliamentary rugby team into his 50s.
Neither the family nor the Labour Party would give the reason for his ill-health. Mr Horomia had struggled with his weight and previously revealed he was a chronic asthmatic and had an enlarged heart.
Mr Horomia was born in Tolaga Bay and was raised in an extended whanau with particular guidance from his grandmother.
He was educated at the Mangatuna Native School and Tolaga Bay Area School and said it was during his schooling he got his first taste of racial division as he and other Maori children walked 5km to school and were passed every day by an empty school bus picking up Pakeha children.
"I used to dream of being picked up by that school bus but, as I grew older, we became more resilient. We went from wishing it would stop to pick us up to thinking that if it did we wouldn't hop on anyway," he said in his maiden speech to Parliament.
"I relate that story now because Maori are often told we've missed the bus. In many cases Maori have not even had the opportunity to get on the bus."
Mr Horomia had a varied career after leaving school; labourer, fencer and scrub cutter, printer, shearer and forestry contractor. In 1982 he oversaw Labour Department work schemes in the East Coast, Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay regions before working as a Group Employment Liaison Scheme field officer.
Mr Horomia was widowed in 1993 and leaves behind three sons Desmond, Wallace and Turei.
-additional reporting APNZ