Diggeress Te Kanawa was born in 1920 to Dame Rangimarie Hetet and Taonui Hetet. Her father named her in honour of the WWI troops referred to as "Diggers". At the age of twenty she married Tana Te Kanawa and together they raised twelve children.
Diggeress grew up as part of a close-knit community that continued to treasure its traditions. This upbringing led her to embrace the proverb, "Puritia nga taonga a o tatou tupuna: Hold fast to the treasures of our ancestors" which, she said, was personally signicant to her life. Diggeress belonged to a family of significant weavers. She took up the craft at an early age herself, learning the sophisticated weaving techniques from her mother and other local kuia.
Diggeress and her family played an important role in maintaining Māori weaving traditions and, as members of the Māori Women's Welfare League, were instrumental in their resurgence during the 1950s. Although weaving had been maintained in some areas in New Zealand during the 19th century, many skills had been lost and there was an urgent call for their revival. Diggeress inspired innumerable others by passing on her knowledge through wananga, workshops, lectures and exhibitions. Her dedication to the maintenance of Māori fibre art led to the publication of the book Weaving a Kakahu (1992), which is the formal expression of a life committed to weaving.
| Diggeress Te Kanawa
with her Icon Award medallion and pin,
designed by John Edgar,
awarded in 2001
Her work was included in exhibitions such as Te Amokura o te Māori (1986), Rotorua National Hui (1990), Te Waka Toi: Contemporary Māori Art from New Zealand (1992), and Paa Harakeke at the Waikato Museum (2002). The Waikato Museum of Art and History was the venue for the exhibition Te Aho Tapu - The Sacred Thread (2004), and the Hamilton Gardens commissioned the sculpture Nga Uri o Hinetuparimaunga, a collaboration between Diggeress and contemporary sculptor Chris Booth (2005).
Diggeress was awarded a C.N.Z.M. (Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit) in the 2000 New Year honours and the Nga Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka/Sir Kingi Ihaka Award from Te Waka Toi for her contribution to Māori Art in 2001. In 2003, she received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award. She also received Te Waka Toi Māori Art Board of Creative New Zealand premiere Award, Te Tohu Tiketike o Te Waka Toi for a Lifetime Commitment to Māori Weaving in 2006 and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato for her dedication to keeping alive the traditions of fine weaving in 2007.
Diggeress died in 2009 at the age of 89. At the time of her passing, Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party, said "Mrs Te Kanawa was a vessel of knowledge for the survival and renaissance of raranga and whatu (kete weaving and cloak making), and taniko weaving for the cloak borders, and she had passed much of her knowledge on to thousands of young people".