Te Kurapa was the third of five children born to Te Tuhera Te Kurapa and his wife Matahera. As a young child he was given to his mother's cousin, Te Whenuanui II (also known as Rangiteremauri), as a tamaiti whangai, and raised traditionally. After a few years he was sent to his paternal grandfather, Haniko Te Ao, at Ruatoki, but he ran away, back to Te Whenuanui when he was seven.
His elders at Ruatahuna were widely respected tohunga, masters of different aspects of Maori and tribal culture and tradition, religious and practical, and Te Kurapa was a diligent student. They were also devout members of Te Kooti's Ringatu religion.
At first he and his family lived on a very isolated farm, but when the eldest was 10 they moved back to Ruatahuna to be near schools. He gradually succeeded to spiritual leadership of the Ringatu church in the district, and he passed on his traditional knowledge to his children, grandchildren, and others of the Tuhoe tribe. His leadership also succeeded in stopping a government-inspired plan to amalgamate lands in the area, but one of his sons died, explained by the Te Urewera sub-tribe (the party he supported in the dispute) as the price exacted by the gods for success.
He had two wives and 17 children, four of whom were sent as tamaiti whangai to other families.