Ngati Porou’s Api Mahuika was intent on building for future generations.

There's a famous Ngati Porou saying that the tribe's lonely mountain, Hikurangi, does not move anywhere.

It's a statement about pride, confidence and, at its heart, the iwi's fierce independence.

Dr Apirana Mahuika, who died yesterday in Gisborne, epitomised that spirit.

Fellow iwi member Sir Tamati Reedy said picking a fight with him was like arguing with a boulder. It was a waste of time.

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"The things that he believed in, well, he was immovable on those issues and a lot of them had to do with Ngati Porou. No one would shake the foundations of his belief in the history of our sense of identity.

"He gave his life for Ngati Porou; that is the easiest way to express it."

At hui throughout the country he always cut a handsome figure. Rarely seen without a hat, he was the type of man that tweed suits were made for, Sir Tamati said.

"He loved that moustache of his. He loved curling it and just smoothing his fingers over it. That was part of the pride of the man."

Whanau spokesman Te Rau Kupenga said the 80-year-old, who is known throughout the country as Api, had been battling illness for the last year.

"He held the name he was given by Sir Apirana Ngata. In many ways that was a burden but that set him on a path in terms of his achievements."

Dr Mahuika was raised in Tikitiki on the East Cape. Once an important tribal centre, the region from Te Araroa to just south of the village is now home to just 2418 people, according to Statistics NZ. Thousands are expected to mourn at Rahui Marae this week.

A founding member of the tribal runanga in 1987, Dr Mahuika led the organisation, which was responsible for frugally building up $50 million worth of farming, forestry, radio and other assets before the tribe's 2012 $110 million Treaty settlement.

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Before the ink was dry on that deal, he told the Herald the collective future of his 71,000- strong iwi was what drove him.

"We have to develop ourselves at home because if you can't keep the home fires burning and if you can't keep the sentiment of your people and the tikanga they belong to, then you lose them. And we don't want to lose them because they are the repositories of our history, our knowledge, our tikanga and our reo."

Education Minister Hekia Parata said her uncle was a walking, talking stereotype of what other iwi know Ngati Porou for - strong links to the church and producing leading educationists.

Dr Mahuika had been an Anglican priest before moving into academia, producing a groundbreaking body of work around Ngati Porou female leaders and the practice of marae up and down the coast being named for wahine.

Ms Parata said her uncle was one of the few people who could lead in prayer, give her an academic lecture and then advocate to different governments - possibly all on the same day, she joked.

"He was a doting father and a completely indulgent grandfather. He was absolutely in love with his mokopuna," she said. "I'll miss his smile, which was both complimentary and expectant at the same time. Every time you'd get a compliment, there was now a list of 10 other things you needed to get on with."

Sir Paul Holmes also had a special relationship with Dr Mahuika after the broadcaster was in a helicopter that crashed into the sea off the East Coast in 1989. Four on board swam in freezing waters to shore but young Television NZ cameraman Joe Von Dinklage was never found.

After the survivors made land, the Ngati Porou leader prayed with the group.

A thankful Holmes later named his son Reuben Thomas Apirana Holmes.

It is understood Dr Mahuika was offered a knighthood several times but turned it down, saying he didn't see himself in the same league as others who held the title "Sir".

King Tuheitia is expected tomorrow at the marae. His spokesman, Tuku Morgan, said Dr Mahuika's ability to lead for three decades put him in a class of his own politically.

"He is synonymous with Ngati Porou."

Dr Apirana Mahuika

• Survived by wife Karin, sons Matanuku and Hamana and four grandchildren.
• Te Runanganui o Ngati Porou chairman
Age: 80
Tangi: At Rahui Marae, Tikitiki, over the next three days. Burial service on Thursday at 11am.