Rukupo was probably born at Orakaiapu pa, Poverty Bay, the son of Te Pohepohe and Hinekoua. He became the tamaiti whangai of his mother's sister, and became a warrior and renowned carver. When his brother died he returned to Poverty Bay to take over the leadership of the Ngati Kaipoho sub-tribe.
His carving masterpiece is the whare nui (meeting house) named Te Hau-ki-Turanga, which was a memorial to his brother. He supervised 17 other carvers, and he himself carved the posts. The building, one of the finest and most important whare nui in existence, is now in Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington.
He also worked on the Te Mana-o-Turanga whare nui, and is considered the greatest of the 19th-century carvers.
As leader of the Ngati Kaipoho, he initially cooperated with the Christian missionaries, but later opposed them and converted to the Pai Marire religion, although he continued to supply Europeans with food and became an assessor for the colonial government. He tried to prevent war between his people and the Europeans, but was unsuccessful. He married and had one son who died before him, leaving the succession to his adopted son, Otene Pitau.
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