Sir Hugh Kawharu, leader of Auckland's Ngati Whatua iwi and one of the country's most prominent academics, passed away at his home this morning after a short illness. He was 79.

It is the second big loss for Maoridom in just weeks following the death of the Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, in August.

His passing comes as a blow to his iwi, who under his guidance as chairman of the Ngati Whatua o Orakei Trust Board, signed an agreement in principle with the Crown to settle long-standing Treaty of Waitangi grievances in June.

Leading figures throughout the country offered their condolences including Prime Minister Helen Clark who said it would be "hard to imagine life in Auckland without Sir Hugh".

"He has been a towering presence in our city for decades, as a senior kaumatua of Ngati Whatua and as an outstanding academic at the University of Auckland."

Former colleague David Hill, who is the Chairman of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Trust Board, said Sir Hugh preferred the "art of reason and good manners over the tactics of bluster and beligerence".

"Typically understated, and always statesmanlike, Sir Hugh has guided the Trust Board's decision-making on matters Maori with unparalleled understanding, impeccable timing and unfailing charm over many years."

Ian Hugh Kawharu was born in Ashburton in 1927. His name was changed in memory of his Ngati Whatua ancestor, his paternal grandfather, Paora Kawharu.

Picked out by family members at a young age to be a leader, Sir Hugh excelledas one of the country's foremost academics.

He was educated at Auckland Grammar School after skipping his final year at Cornwall Primary School.

Sir Hugh received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Auckland in geology and physics before completing his Master's degree in anthropology at Cambridge University. He then gained a MLitt and DPhil from Oxford University.

In 1970 he became the foundation Professor of Social Anthropology and Maori Studies at Massey University and between 1985 and 1993 was Professor of Maori Studies and Head of the Department of Anthropology at Auckland University.

Sir Hugh was also involved with a number of other organisations which included serving on the Royal Commission of the Courts, the New Zealand Maori Council, the Board of Maori Affairs, the Council of the Auckland Institute and Museum and the Waitangi Tribunal.

He was a New Zealand delegate to United Nations agencies Unesco and FAO.

In 1989 he was knighted for his services to Maori although he said in an interview with the Herald he put more value on a general citation he received from the Governor General referring to the Knighthood as being for services to New Zealand.

"Fundamentally my interests and commitment have been to the Maori people but I have chosen to involve myself at least as much in the Pakeha world, partly by force of circumstance and upbringing," said Sir Hugh.

He later received the highest Royal honour when he became an additional member of the Order of New Zealand in 2002.

His wife, Freda Kawharu, died in late 2000. She was 66.

Sir Hugh was surrounded by his daughters Merata, Amokura, Margaret, Evelyn and Lindy, mokopuna and sons-in-law when he passed away shortly after 10am.

His body will lie in state at Orakei marae and it is understood his tangi will be held at the end of the week.