Laura Appell

Interviewed by Alan Macfarlane
Filmed by Sarah Harrison
Interview Length: 18 minutes, 23 seconds
Interview date: April 19, 2004
Supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Description of Interview

In this short interview, Laura W. R. Appell provides us with insights into her life living and working with the Rungus in the Sabah region (Malaysia) of Borneo. Appell is not, in her own words, “a career anthropologist.” Obtaining a Bachelor of Science from McGill University in 1955, her background was in geology and geography. Her ethnographic interests began to grow after meeting anthropologist and future spouse, George Appell, who was then working at the Peabody Museum.

Appell tells us of her time interviewing Rungus priestesses, and we also learn about her roles as housekeeper, wife, mother, and grandmother during fieldwork. Appell’s account of her everyday experiences in the field demonstrates the invaluable contribution of ethnographic knowledge in the social sciences. Appell’s legacy cannot only be found in the monographs and ethnographic accounts she has published, but also in her enduring relations with members of the Rungus community. As she explains in this interview, her next project is translating all her ethnographic work for the Rungus people to use. 

Partial Video Index

0:00:05 Background; degree in geography and geology at McGill University; met George Appell in the Peabody Museum; grandfather had been director of the Museum on retirement; honeymoon paddling down the Mackenzie River; went to Borneo with six-month old baby; took on work of interviewing Rungus priestesses as they would not talk to a man about family life; had no tape-recorder at that stage so wrote the ceremonial language; had help from a boy with more idiomatic language; wonderful people; reference to own grandson being entranced by them too; never afraid; did build a separate house as there was some T.B. in the longhouse; had malaria and dysentery once; there were European doctors.

0:07:03 Advantage of not being a career anthropologist; able to be the housekeeper too; assimilated the culture by doing chores with other women; never felt any difficulty in understanding the Rungus; they were always patient and helpful; in the U.S.A. people are not as warm or outgoing to people they do not know; Rungus are sensitive and delicate in social relations; love children, want big families.

0:11.07 Chief informant was a priestess; they deal with illness and have to appease the spirits that cause it; ritual lexicon; later took tape recorder; never took moving pictures.

0:13:28 Now trying to get as much translation done; filling in dictionary; documenting material to return it to the Rungus for them to use; Rungus now know our children and grandchildren; daughters all involved in some way with the Rungus too.