Manuera's mother was a high-ranking aristocrat of the Ngati Awa, and his father was of lower rank, although still the son of a chief. Family elders therefore cursed the couple with childlessness, and his mother had many miscarriages. They were finally told by a tohunga (expert in traditional practices) that the only way to break the curse was to give their babies away at birth. So baby Eruera was born in a makeshift thatched hut and immediately given to an aunt and uncle as a tamaiti whangai. They were a poor family, but staunch members of the Ringatu religion founded by Te Kooti Arikirangi.
He left school to become a farm worker, then inherited farms from both his birth and adoptive families. When his birth mother died he became head of their Te Pahipoto hapu (sub-tribe). He was a strong supporter of European education and the abandonment of traditional practices which would slow Maori development, which led to him being given the epithet He Tangata Wawahi Taha (A Destroyer of Calabashes), He spent 40 years on the board of his local school, 15 years as his chair. He was active in all areas of local affairs and a skilled if unspectacular traditional orator.
He was made an MBE in 1974, and OBE in 1977, and awarded an honorary D.Litt. by Victoria University of Wellington in 1979.
He married Te Pareake Te Uamairangi Kapua in 1916 and they had 15 children.