Laura W. R. Appell, cofounder of the Anthropologists Fund for Urgent Anthropology Research, cofounder of The Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research, and Fellow of the Borneo Research Council, died unexpectedly on October 2, 2015 at the age of 83.
After graduating from McGill University Appell worked at Harvard’s Peabody Museum where her grandfather, Edward Reynolds, had been director in the 1920s. She was administrative assistant to Professor Brew, Director of the Museum. It was at the Museum that she met her husband George. They married in 1957 and the two were to become a dedicated research team whose work together spanned 58 years and took them from the Mackenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories of Canada to the Colony of British North Borneo to Indonesian Borneo.
During the early years in the field, starting in 1959, in addition to raising her daughter, Appell learned the Rungus Momogon language and undertook research on kinship, religion, and women’s roles. This was critical as health and fertility were in the hands of priestesses. Her research led to the uncovering and study of the beautiful, chanted texts performed by priestesses at all major ceremonies.
Appell’s fieldwork among the Rungus was broken between 1964 and 1986 when she and her husband were denied entrance to Sabah. From 1986 she and her husband continued working with the Rungus, and at the time of Appell’s death they were working together on the translation and analysis of the Rungus oral texts and on a Rungus cultural dictionary.
Appell was a passionate field worker who was most truly happy collecting ethnographies and oral literature. Her co-founding of the Sabah Oral Literature Project, in which local Rungus collect oral literature and interview surviving priestesses and others with traditional ecological and religious knowledge, has become the template for many other projects around the world.
Appell published on her own and with George on Rungus religion and culture. Her most important theoretical publications dealt with menstruation and female roles in Rungus society. Appell pointed out in a ground-breaking article that menstruation is an unmarked category both socially and culturally, and suggested that the explanation for this is in a set of cultural values associated with what she termed gender symmetry, whereby women occupy a position of high regard and share equivalent status with men.
Appell’s impact on the craft of ethnography and the collection of oral literature is significant, and as word of her death spread researchers from Tibet, to Bhutan, to India, to Malaysia and Indonesia, to Australia, to Europe and the US marked her passing with prayer flags, the lighting of butter lamps, prayers and reminiscences.
Appell is survived by her husband George, daughters, Laura, Amity and Charity (all engaged in anthropology), their husbands, five grandchildren and their families, her brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews. See the 2015 Borneo Research Bulletin or the Firebird Foundation website for a fuller discussion of Laura’s work.
Donations in Laura’s name can be made to The Firebird Foundation; Box A; Phillips, ME. 04966.
(Laura P. Appell-Warren, Amity A. Doolittle, Charity R. Appell McNabb, George Appell)