Diggeress Te Kanawa was born in 1920 to Dame Rangimarie Hetet and Taonui Hetet. She grew up as part of a close-knit community which 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 significant to her life. She began weaving at an early age, learning from her mother and other local kuia.
Te Kanawa’s family played an important role in continuing Māori weaving traditions. 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. Te Kanawa inspired many 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.
Her work has been included in exhibitions all over Aotearoa, and she was awarded a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2000 New Year honours, followed by the Nga Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka/Sir Kingi Ihaka Award from Te Waka Toi for her contribution to Māori Art in 2001. 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 in 2007 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato for her dedication to keeping alive the traditions of fine weaving.