Nene was probably born in the 1780s. He was the second son of Tapua, leader and tohunga of Ngāti Hao of Hokianga, and the younger brother of Patuone, the inheritor of their father's mana.
Nene became the highest-ranking chief among his own people in the year 1828. It became his responsibility, often an onerous one, to protect the Wesleyan mission (which had moved to Hokianga in 1827) and the traders (who had begun to set themselves up in the district in the mid 1820s). Nene had seen the advantages of a Pākehā presence. Anxious that the district should not fall into disrepute among traders, he worked to keep the peace in the often turbulent frontier society.
By the 1830s Nene was regarded by the European community as a leader they could rely on and turn to for advice. After the visit of the French man-o'-war La Favorite in 1831, he was among the 13 Māori leaders who signed a petition to William IV. This was prompted by missionary fears of French intentions. Nene also signed the 1835 Declaration of the Independence of New Zealand which proclaimed the sovereign rights of the Confederation of United Tribes and appealed to William IV for protection.
His prestige among Europeans was great. When he died, on 4 August 1871, Governor George Bowen wrote in a dispatch to London that he was the Māori leader who 'did more than any other…to establish the Queen's authority and promote colonization'. He was buried with Church of England rites at Russell, his pall-bearers were his kin and local government officials, and his coffin was borne to the grave by 12 leading colonists.