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Laura W. R. Appell (1932-2015).


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. Therefore, following up on her previous work, she co-founded the Sabah Oral Literature Project with George to record and preserve this oral literature. This project is managed by the Rungus people themselves after being trained by Laura and George. The Sabah Oral Literature Project has produced a significant and extensive archive of historical accounts, epic narratives, myths and legends, agricultural ritual and prayers, and most importantly, the complex ritual poetry that was sung by priestesses at all major ceremonies for the various gods and spirits.

For a period, Laura and George returned to their field site every couple of years in the summer. They also hosted Rungus visitors several times at their home in Maine at which time they continued their training of Rungus on the collection of oral literature and enquired further into various aspects of Rungus culture.

In 1993 Laura and George founded the Anthropologists Fund for Urgent Anthropology Research. The contributions to this effort are used to fund the Royal Anthropological Institute's Fellowships in Urgent Anthropology.

Laura was also cofounder in 1999 with George of the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research and served on the board. Together they developed the Fellowship program for the collection of the oral literature and traditional ecology of indigenous people. At the time of her death there were over 140 Fellowships awarded for research in all major continents.


Laura published both on her own and extensively with George on Rungus religion and culture, as well as on Bulusu' religion. Laura's most important theoretical publications dealt with menstruation and female roles in Rungus society. Laura pointed out in her ground-breaking article that menstruation is an unmarked category both socially and culturally. Laura suggested that the explanation for this is in a set of cultural values associated with what she termed gender symmetry. Rungus women occupy a position of high regard and share equivalent status with men. But there is also the basic value premise of Rungus society: sexual relations, if entered into illicitly, are dangerous and deleterious to the whole society. As a result sexual matters, particularly among unmarried females, are seldom discussed.

In Laura's 1991 article she expanded on the concept of gender symmetry for describing male and female roles among the Rungus. She argued that aspects of ideology and behavior can be congruent or in conflict. Among the Rungus the ideology of equality and behavioral equality are identical in female and male roles and conflict between the sexes is minimal. She avoided the term egalitarian as it includes issues of social philosophy. Laura therefore used the term gender symmetry for those situations where the roles of both sexes are not identical but are given the same social valuation and are thus of equal importance for society functioning, being interlinked to form a whole.

At the time of her death, Laura was working together with George on the Rungus Cultural Dictionary, which includes extensive cultural descriptions. Laura had devoted her research life to the ethnography of Rungus society, and was never happier than when she and George returned to Rungus friends and village life.

Laura, in addition to her own contributions to the ethnography of Borneo, was a dedicated partner in all her husband's activities and had a signal influence on his own research, life, and writings. The welcoming home she created, both in the field and in Maine, became a harbor for many wandering academics and their families. Conversations were always exciting and flowed easily. Laura at all times provided guidance and inspiration to those researchers going to Borneo and to those studying oral literature in Tibet and Bhutan (Please see the death announcement made by the Bhutan Oral Literature Project

In 2014 the Laura W. R. Appell Fellowship was established by the Firebird Foundation to support the documentation of oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge that is based on the methodology that she helped develop in the Sabah Oral Literature Project.

In recognition of Laura's commitment to the preservation of Borneo oral traditions and in recognition of her contributions to Borneo Ethnography, a fund to honor Laura W. R. Appell has been established by the Borneo Research Council to support the activities and publications of the Council.


Appell, Laura W. R.

1958 With Paddle and Notebook in the Northwest Territories. Appalachia 24:37-44.

1988 Menstruation among the Rungus: An Unmarked Category. In: Blood Magic: New Perspectives in the Anthropology of Menstruation. Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottleib, editors. Berkeley: University of California Press.

1991 Sex Role Symmetry among the Rungus of Sabah. In: Female and Male in Borneo: Contributions and Challenges to Gender Studies. Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr., editor. Borneo Research Council Monograph Series Volume One. Williamsburg: Borneo Research Council.

1998a Memorials: Datuk Kitingan Sabanau. Borneo Research Bulletin 29:8-9.

1998b Memorials: Florence May Langdon Ewins. Borneo Research Bulletin 29:8.

1998c Memorials: Geoffrey Riddle Hedley. Borneo Research Bulletin 29:8.

Appell, G. N., and Laura W. R. Appell

1961 A Provisional Field Dictionary of the Rungus Dusun Language of North Borneo. Duplicated. (Microfilm may be obtained from the Educational Resources Information Center, Clearinghouse for Linguistics.)

1993 To Converse with the Gods: The Rungus Bobolizan--Spirit Medium and Priestess. In: The Seen and the Unseen: Shamanism, Mediumship and Possession in Borneo. Robert Winzeler, ed. Borneo Research Council Monograph Series Volume 2. Williamsburg: Borneo Research Council.

2003a Death Among the Rungus Momogun of Sabah, Malaysia: The Dissolution of Personhood and Dispersion of Multiple Souls and Spirit Counterparts. In: Journeys of The Soul: Anthropological Studies of Death, Burial, and Reburial Practices in Borneo. W. D. Wilder, ed. Phillips, ME: Borneo Research Council.

2003b Rungus Dusun. In: Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Men and Women in the World's Cultures. Carol R. Ember and Melvin Ember, eds. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files and Kluwer/Plenum.

2012 The Collection of Oral Literature and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Field Guide. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research. Out of print

2012 Rungus Classes of Oral Literature. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2013a A Cultural Dictionary for Translation and Exegesis. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2013b Ethical Issues in Recording Oral Literature. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2013c The Sabah Oral Literature Project: Theory and Methods. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Appell, Laura W. R., and George N. Appell

1993 To Do Battle with the Spirits: Bulusu'Spirit Mediums. In : The Seen and the Unseen: Shamanism, Mediumship and Possession in Borneo, edited by Robert Winzeler. Borneo Research Council Monograph Series Volume 2. Williamsburg: Borneo Research Council

1997 Rungus Ritual Text from Sabah Oral Literature Project. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2012 Community-Based Field Methods for the Collection of Oral Literature. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

2013 Collection Issues and Suggestions. Phillips, ME: Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research.

Unpublished Papers:

Appell, Laura W. R.

1994 The Seizing of Indigenous Lands and the Destruction of Cultures by the Governments of East Kalimantan and Sabah, Malaysia. Paper delivered at the Borneo Research Council Session Land, Law, and Culture: Human Rights in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr., Chair, at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association, December 4, 1994.

Appell, Laura W. R., and G. N. Appell

1995 The Risks in Using Ethnicity for Mobilizing Political action: The Failure to Transform Kadazan Ethnic Identity to Political Identity in Sabah, Malaysia. Presented at Borneo Research Council Session "New Skins, New Wine: Substance and Symbolism of New Sociocultural Forms in Borneo," Christina Kreps, Chair, at the annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association, November 19, 1995.

(George N. Appell, Ph.D., Laura P. Appell-Warren, Ed.D. Amity A. Dolittle, Ph.D., Charity R. Appell McNabb)


I first met Laura W.R. Appell in 1986 when she and husband George and their daughters had just returned to Sabah after many years. Newly working in Sabah's Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, I had arranged to meet them at the Sabah Museum together with one of their Rungus friends, a village headman whose name (from memory) was KK Marajun. We met at the indoor marble steps going up to the Museum's exhibition gallery. My immediate impression of Laura and George was that they were open and friendly, with a sincere love for Sabah and especially the Rungus.

Over the years, I came to know Laura well. In addition to public lectures and family get-togethers during their 1986 trip (they were friends of a couple of my husband's brothers, the eldest of whom was then Sabah's Chief Minister), we met up during many of their subsequent visits to Sabah and at Borneo Research Council international conferences. We also kept in touch by mail and later email. Laura was an amazing person. She had first lived among the Rungus with George and their first baby daughter Laura, during fieldwork for George's doctorate from 1959-1960 and 1961-1963. George always credited Laura for the success of their fieldwork, especially with uncovering the details of the Rungus belief system and the intricacies of the ritual language. This was because, as in most indigenous Sabahan societies, only certain gifted women were the priestesses of the traditional religion among the Rungus. As a married woman with a child, Laura naturally formed friendships with the bobolizan or priestesses who themselves were married women with children. From them she learned about Rungus cosmology, ritual systems and family life. Laura's research on the rinait, the huge body of chanted ritual poetry memorised by the bobolizan, formed the basis of the Sabah Oral Literature Project that was later established by Appells and their Rungus cultural dictionary.

Laura and I shared many things in common--our love for Sabah and its indigenous peoples, a passion for true ethnographic research, our love for our families and children. Laura encouraged me in my research into Sabah's music. It was Laura who first told me about how novice bobolizan used to play the turali noseflute to learn the rinait--being prohibited from reciting the verses outside the ritual context, they would play the softly sounding noseflute to help memorise the patterns of the poetry. At the time, I thought that the imitation of the sound of rinait chanting was merely a melodic device for Rungus turali performance, just as the Lotud imitate the tunes of secular songs with their turali for entertainment, or the Kadazan Dusun of Tambunan copy stylized mourning crying with their turahi to express melancholy when they remember deceased relatives years later. Laura's explanation based on firsthand experience with the bobolizan, however, provided a different perspective on Rungus noseflute performance practice.

I miss Laura, her bright blue eyes, her infectious laugh and sense of humor, and her practical straightforward approach to life. She was totally unpretentious and genuine, a loving and devoted wife, mother and grandmother, and a true friend.

(Jacqueline Pugh-Kitingan, Professor of Ethnomusicology, and Holder of the Kadazandusun Chair, Universiti Malaysia Sabah)


Although I heard and read many things about George and Laura's work among the Rungus during my undergraduate years, back in 1989-1992, I only managed to meet them for the first time in 1997 soon after the completion of my Masters thesis. I first met Laura in their modest field house in Kg. Guomon, Matunggong, where they stayed for most of their fieldwork among the Rungus. It was about 10 o'clock in the morning and George quickly took the opportunity to discuss his Rungus-English dictionary. Soon, our conversation led into lunchtime and Laura insisted that I stay for lunch. I found this invitation interesting because there were only three of us and Laura was the third person. I didn't realise that she had gone to prepare a meal in the kitchen, because in fact she never left the conversation.

She returned with a plate of steaming hot noodles. Then I realized that instant noodles were what they used to have for lunch during their fieldwork. My admiration for their dedication in pursuing their academic interests among the Rungus grew even greater that day.

Now, I myself am an anthropologist and actively involved in the Sabah cultural scene. Now and then, I will proudly announce that the Rungus are the best documented indigenous ethnic group in Sabah when it comes to cultural documentation as well as social change, thanks to George and Laura Appell. Laura's work among Rungus women is truly amazing. Younger Rungus scholars, including myself, will find it difficult to expand on her contribution. I recall that at one point my Ph.D. supervisor in Kent asked me why I couldn't come up with something more original about the Rungus, noting that my thesis was full of references to the Appells' work. I replied that their work describes genuine Rungus culture.

George and Laura's lifelong dedication to the Rungus community was a defining period in the history of anthropological research that helped make the Rungus of today a proud ethnic group. Young Rungus people are proud of their Rungus identity, because who they are and what they are is well documented. For me, this is a healthy sign for a community that enables them to embrace changes because they have access to the cultural past through deep ethnographic research, and this access, borrowing the Appells' words, provides "a springboard to the future."

Laura was not Rungus, but her work and cultural knowledge qualified her beyond identity. She herself helped define what is Rungus.

Rest in Peace, Laura.

(Paul Porodong, Ph.D., Rungus Anthropologist and Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Heritage Universiti Malaysia Sabah)
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Title Annotation:MEMORIALS
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:In memoriam
Geographic Code:1U1ME
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:Notes from the editor.
Next Article:Barbara Guttler Brunig Harrisson: 1922-2015.

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