Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Laura W. R. Appell (1932-2015)

Academic journal article Borneo Research Bulletin

Laura W. R. Appell (1932-2015)

Article excerpt

Laura W.R. Appell, Fellow of the Borneo Research Council, died unexpectedly on October 2, 2015 at the age of 83. Laura is buried in Phillips, Maine, in a cemetery on family land.

Laura W. Reynolds, daughter of distinguished Boston physician, George P. Reynolds, graduated from McGill in 1956, with a major in Geology and Geography. In 1956 Laura became administrative assistant and secretary to Professor J. O. Brew, Director of the Peabody Museum, Harvard, where her grandfather, Edward Reynolds M.D., had been director in the late 1920s. There she met George N. Appell, a graduate student in anthropology. They were married May 25, 1957 and immediately left for a canoe exploration of the Mackenzie River Basin in the Northwest Territories of Canada to find a site for fieldwork. Laura, whose passion for the outdoors, nature, and adventure were matched by that of her husband, spent that summer with the Dogrib Indians of Fort Rae, where at times she was left alone in the village while George was on hunting expeditions.

That summer of 1957 was integral in the creation of a dedicated husband and wife research team that spanned Laura's professional life until her death. It was in 1958 when George was appointed a Research Scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Australian National University, in Canberra, that Laura and George's extensive research on the Rungus Momogon began.

Their first child, Laura P. Appell (now Laura P. Appell-Warren, Ed.D.), was born while they were in Canberra, and in 1959 Laura and George took their 6-month-old daughter to live with the Rungus Momogun in the Colony of North Borneo. Their first field session ended in 1960 and a second field session took place in 1961-1963. From then on Laura and George spent at least part of every day, whether in the field or not, actively engaged in their research on the Rungus Momogon spiritual, domestic, and legal traditions. During that time in the field, in addition to raising young Laura, Laura learned the Rungus language and undertook research on kinship, religion, and women's roles. This was critically important research as major aspects of health and fertility were largely in the hands of priestesses. Laura's research led to the uncovering and study of the beautiful, chanted texts performed by priestesses at all the major ceremonies and which formed a large body of essential cultural data.

Their second daughter, Amity (now Amity A. Doolittle, Ph.D.) was born in Canberra in 1964 and their third daughter, Charity (now Charity Appell McNabb) was born in Maine in 1965. All three of their daughters experienced life in the field at various times and as a result have all become anthropologists.

Laura and George had planned to return to continue studying Rungus society on completion of George's Ph.D. dissertation. However, following the withdrawal of the British from North Borneo, the government of Sabah, Malaysia, declared Laura and George persona non grata. In attempting to return to the Rungus in 1980 they and their three daughters were refused entry. George was sent back to Kuala Lumpur. But Laura and her daughters were allowed to stay overnight, permitting Laura to return to the Rungus for a few hours to visit Itulina her closest friend and priestess, who had been her source on the religion. Itulina who was then dying said she knew Laura would be coming back to see her before she died as she had seen it in a dream.

In 1980-81 Laura along with her husband and three daughters worked among the Bulusu' of East Kalimantan, where Laura studied the Bulusu' religion and kinship, and did additional research on the Punan.

It was not until 1986 when there was a change in the Sabah government that Laura and her husband were permitted to return to the Rungus. They found major social changes had occurred. But the exquisite oral literature of the Rungus religion remained in the knowledge reservoirs of the older generation. …

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