The Māori King was among hundreds of mourners who arrived at a Rotorua marae this morning to farewell and pay respects to Māori academic expert Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy CNZM QSO.

Milroy, described as a "once in a generation leader", died on Tuesday, aged 82, following an illness.

The Tūhoe leader had spent much of the past decade living in Ngongotahā.

His tangi is being held at Mataatua Marae in Rotorua and this morning about 400 Tainui representatives were welcomed on to the marae. Among them was King Tuheitia.

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Giving Milroy's standing nationwide, it is expected up to 4000 people will go through Mataatua Marae in the coming days before his funeral service on Friday.

Milroy was brought up in Ruatoki and was educated at Rotorua Boys' High School before gaining University Entrance, the first in the Ruatoki Valley to achieve that.

He went on to become a scholar and knowledge keeper of all things Māori.

Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy. Photo / Supplied
Professor Te Wharehuia Milroy. Photo / Supplied

Milroy was a former Waikato University professor, former trustee of the National Kōhanga Reo, a member of the Waitangi Tribunal and, with Sir Timoti Karetu, set up the National Institute of Māori Language, Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo.

In the 2003 Queen's Birthday Honours, Milroy was made a Companion of the Queen's Service Order for public services. In 2009, he was a recipient of the Māori Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi award.

He also spearheaded Tūhoe's Treaty of Waitangi claim.

The tangihanga of Wharehuia Milroy at Mataatua Marae in Rotorua. Photo / Ben Fraser
The tangihanga of Wharehuia Milroy at Mataatua Marae in Rotorua. Photo / Ben Fraser

Milroy was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to Māori language, in the 2012 New Year Honours.

Milroy wanted to be buried at Rotorua's Kauae Cemetery as his late wife Niwa (Ngati Whakaue, Ngāti Kahungunu) is buried there.

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Together they had nine children including Judge Stephanie Milroy of the Māori Land Court.

Māori language expert and presenter Scotty Morrison from Rotorua said Milroy was like the "Morpheus of Māoridom".

Morrison said he was a humble man who was an oracle on not just Māori knowledge but life in general.

"A lot of people would go to him for advice not just about Māori protocol but how to live your life. His understanding of humanity is a reason why he was a once in a generation leader and person."

Ngāti Whakaue kaumatua Monty Morrison said his iwi were at the marae in large numbers yesterday as Niwa Milroy was descended from Ngāti Whakaue.

Sir Timoti Karetu, (front left), and Professor Wharehuia Milroy, (front right) set up the National Institute of Māori Language, Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo. Photo / Ben Fraser
Sir Timoti Karetu, (front left), and Professor Wharehuia Milroy, (front right) set up the National Institute of Māori Language, Te Panekiretanga o Te Reo. Photo / Ben Fraser

He said Milroy would leave a legacy of te reo speakers who had looked up to him over the decades.

Some of his former students had already paid their respects to him during speeches at the marae, Morrison said.

"He will be sorely missed not only by Ngāti Whakaue but the whole of Te Arawa."

Minister for Māori Development Nanaia Mahuta also joined Kiingitanga followers at Mataatua Marae today.

"Wharehuia was a prominent champion of te reo Māori for a number of decades and was highly regarded nationally by whānau, hapū and iwi," Mahuta said.

"Wharehuia lived in the Waikato for many years with his late wife Niwa and children. He had a gentle, humble and humorous personality and was generous with the knowledge he possessed about te Ao Maori.

"He will be remembered as a bastion of te reo and a great exponent of his Ngai Tūhoe reo and tikanga.

"We acknowledge his life work and in particular the generosity of his family who enabled Wharehuia to make a legacy contribution to language revitalisation. Their loss is felt by many and we offer our deepest sympathy at this time."