The death of respected kaumātua Dr Kihi Ngatai, QSM, has been described as a "great loss for Tauranga Moana".
Ngatai, of Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Ranginui, died on Sunday aged 91, surrounded by whānau.
His death triggered shock, sadness and tributes from leaders in Tauranga, including the city council which stood in a moment's silence to honour the late kaumātua yesterday.Family member Aurere Thatcher said Ngatai's whanāu celebrated his birthday last weekend and was able to spend a lot of time with him in the last month.
"We got to have a family get together and do all of that stuff before he left," she said.
Ngatai's love for tikanga Māori came from his bloodline, Thatcher said.
"He had a chiefly bloodline," she said. "His great-great-grandfather built and looked after Whareroa Marae. He is a direct descendant of him and that's part of it.
"He was a leader, a rangatira of his time – everyone looked to him for guidance when it came to our rituals and our practices, all traditional aspects of being Māori.
"He really carried that for us, not just us at Whareroa [Marae] but the whole Tauranga Moana."
Thatcher's cousin Meremaihi Aloua said Ngatai's death would send shockwaves throughout the community.
"He led Tauranga Moana through many kaupapa Māori and he will be sadly missed throughout all of the hapū and iwi of throughout Tauranga and further throughout the country."
Ngāi Te Rangi kaumātua Dr Hauata Palmer said Ngatai was a disciplined man who looked after himself well.
"That's why his death came as quite a big shock to a lot of us."
Palmer said he would miss Ngatai's "lovely oratory voice on marae" that made everyone "sit up and take notice".
"I don't think he had an equal, not just in Tauranga but in the country. He was that type of person."
Palmer knew Ngatai personally as both served on the Waitangi Tribunal and in 2014, the pair were presented with honorary doctorates for their contribution to Māori welfare and interests.
"We always regarded him as [the] spokesperson for Ngāi te Rangi iwi and for the whole of Māoridom in Tauranga."
Ngatai was deservedly held in high esteem for his knowledge and selflessness, Palmer said.
"He was always [keen] to speak to people, especially young people. He enjoyed sharing his experiences with young people but he was very, very much steeped in the old ways, tikanga (Māori custom), because he was brought up in that era, in that domain.
"The old people he had with him taught him everything. He knew so much about things Māori, like history, whakapapa, all these things he was always willing to share that."
Palmer said Ngatai's knowledge was so deep he could sometimes surprise people.
"Sometimes after a whaikōrero (speech), he would start singing a waiata and nobody would know it. That's how much he knew. He was still able to surprise us with new stuff."
Ngatai was married to former Tauranga District Council (as it was known then) member Maria Ngatai who served between 1992 and 1995. She died in 2017.
Tauranga City Council strategic Māori engagement manager Carlo Ellis knew Ngatai both personally and professionally.
"It's a great loss for Tauranga Moana and probably for te ao Māori across the country," Ellis said.
"The best we can do is enjoy these last few days we have with him and give him a send-off fitting for him."
Ellis, from Ngai Tukairangi, said Ngatai was a humble leader held in huge regard and "someone whose mana spoke for himself".
Ngatai was a referee for Ellis when he went for the council role and his late wife Maria was his wedding celebrant.
"It has been a privilege for us as whānau that he's been around here with us for as long as he has before aunty called him to the other side," Ellis said.
"It's always a shock and the emotions well up. We think of our whānau, cousins and uncles and aunties who will be dealing with this."
Ellis said Ngatai had been a strong stalwart for te ao Māori.
"He's always been that rock in that regard, but the thing that makes it so poignant is he's so kind and generous to all of us. He's someone that we've fought to try to aspire to be."
Former Tauranga mayor Stuart Crosby said Ngatai was always happy to explain tikanga to him.
"I had a lot to do with both Kihi and his wife Maria over my time in local government. I found Kihi incredibly supportive ... He was incredibly helpful," Crosby said.
"He could transverse both the Māori world and the non-Māori world and he was a person who could explain Māori matters to a non-Māori like myself."
Crosby said despite Ngatai's position within the community, he spotted him mowing the lawns at Whareroa Marae on the odd occasion.
"He was a very humble man."
Ngatai was survived by his children Rikihana, Turi, Kihi junior and Ngawa, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
He joins wife Maria as well as his eldest daughter, Puharangi, and his parents and siblings.
Te Puni Kokiri reported the couple planted the first kiwifruit vines in the Tauranga area more than 40 years ago.
In 2006, they were each honoured with a Queen's Service Medal in recognition for their contributions to Māori and the wider community.
Kihi Ngatai was also awarded a Ta Kingi Ihaka Toi Māori award in 2009, and was the first chairman of Te Runanga o Ngāi Te Rangi.
He was appointed to the Waitangi Tribunal in 2008 and despite no longer being a member, still served on inquiry panels.
Ngatai spent most of his life in the Matapihi peninsula where his governance experience grew from converting the family dairy farm into a kiwifruit orchard.
He also served as the director of the Māori kiwifruit growers fraternity, Te Awanui Hukapak Limited, for several years.
As a trustee of Te Pā o Te Ariki Trust and Maungatapu Marae Trust, Ngatai was involved in the decades-long battle to have Transpower move powerlines in Maungatapu and particularly off Te Pā o Te Ariki, the pā site of Ngāti Hē.
• Ngatai's tangihanga at Whareroa Marae will take place today and tomorrow with his funeral to be held at 10am on Thursday.
Additional reporting Luke Kirkness.