Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Adrienne Kaeppler

By Aislinn Sanders

On March 5th, 2022, American anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler died in Washington D.C. She was 86 years old.

Milwaukee-born Kaeppler got her bachelor’s degree in English Literature and Music at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee before moving to Honolulu to pursue anthropology at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She would later work for almost four decades with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History as a Pacific Islands research anthropologist and curator.

Kaeppler moved to Hawai’i in 1959 to begin her graduate studies in anthropology. Following her love of dance, Kaeppler began studying Tongan dance in 1964. In 1967, she completed her dissertation entitled “The Structure of Tongan Dance.” She later extended her research interests into other forms of Tongan art and their interrelation with Tongan social structure. Throughout her research, Kaeppler spent five decades creating a body of anthropological work which covered Polynesian cultures (especially Hawai’i, Rapa Nui, and Tonga) and Asian dance; later, she became an expert on the travels of Captain Cook. In total, she published over 300 works. Her research brought important insights of these cultures to the English-speaking world. She received the Smithsonian’s Secretary’s Distinguished Scholar Award and Secretary’s Research Prize in 2010 and 2019, respectively. In March 2019, Smithsonian Magazine published an article on the leading ladies in science, crediting Kaeppler with “[shedding] light on the intangible knowledge imbued within material culture and relationships between performance and visual art and sociocultural structure.”

Kaeppler was also credited as a leading academic in the field of Pacific Island ethnomusicology. In 2008, the Tongan “Lakalaka’ dance, a dance which involves up to 1,000 or more people singing and dancing in synchronized motions, became recognized as a UNESCO Masterpiece of Intangible Heritage, thanks in part to the research she completed.

Kaeppler’s recent publications are on Polynesian barkcloth, early western photographers in Tonga, Polynesian dyes and decoration, and social life ritual objects. Her recent publications can be found here.