The death of the highly-regarded leader, academic and champion of the Maori language, Erima Henare, has left a "huge hole" among his people, a Ngati Hine spokesman says.

Mr Henare, 62, attended a function at Parliament on Wednesday evening and is believed to have died later that night in his sleep.

He was the head of the Maori Language Commission, an adviser to the Maori King, and a leading authority on the history, reo and tikanga of Te Tai Tokerau.

As the son of Sir James Henare, who rose from the rank of private to commanding officer of the Maori Battalion during World War II and was arguably Northland's most respected kaumatua of the 20th century, Mr Henare was destined for great things.

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Ngati Hine leader Pita Tipene said the whole iwi was in mourning and preparing for Mr Henare's return. He was expected to arrive at Otiria Marae from Wellington about 9pm yesterday. Discussions would then begin to determine his final journey and where he would be laid to rest.

Mr Tipene said he had been with Mr Henare only hours earlier when they attended new MP Ria Bond's maiden speech in Parliament on Wednesday evening. The NZ First MP entered Parliament after Winston Peters' victory in the recent Northland byelection. Although Ms Bond previously lived in Invercargill, she is of Ngati Hine descent. It was a shock to learn Mr Henare had died later that night, Mr Tipene said.

"He has left a huge hole in Ngati Hine, Ngapuhi and the nation, because everyone respected him so much. All we can do is try to carry on his legacy and vision, and that of his Ngati Hine forebears."

Another Ngati Hine leader, Waihoroi Shortland, said the greatest loss was what Mr Henare had yet to do.

"As much as Erima has done, on the national stage and the home front, I believe we were still to see what he could achieve, and that is the real loss for Ngati Hine. Leadership of his ilk is hard to replace. There were still many things he had to accomplish, and that potential has been snuffed out when it ought to have bloomed."

That potential included Mr Henare's ability to make peace and bring factions together, Mr Shortland said.

Mr Henare was one of the key expert witnesses in the Waitangi Tribunal's ongoing Northland inquiry, a member of the Waitangi National Trust Board, Maori cultural adviser to Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, and executive director of Maori at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. His many other roles included membership of Creative New Zealand, Northland District Health Board and the NorthTec Council. He served as chairman of Te Tai Tokerau PHO and chief executive of the Ngati Hine Health Trust.

Mr Henare is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren. One of his sons, Peeni Henare, was elected Labour MP for Tamaki Makaurau in 2014.