Obituary for Heather Ann Peters

Heather A. Peters, Ph.D.


Dr. Heather A. Peters -- sinologist, anthropologist, archaeologist, United Nations worker, and human rights activist – was killed on Saturday, April, 24th, 2021 in Philadelphia, age 74. A skilled and experienced cyclist, she was struck down by an SUV as she headed toward the bicycle trail for one of the long rides that she so loved.

During the 1980s, Heather conducted extensive research in newly politically accessible minority regions of China, receiving a major research grant to do work in the Tai Lue people in the Xishuangbanna. A woman of great grace, good humor, and charm, speaking fluent Mandarin, she could often overcome the bureaucratic obstacles to research so common at the time. She also taught at the Minorities Institute in Kunming, Yunnan, and worked hard to integrate her students into her work.

Heather was educated at Barnard, Princeton, and Yale.  She graduated with a degree in Oriental Studies from Barnard College, Columbia University, where she first studied Chinese. She then finished her Master's Degree in Chinese Art and Archeology at Princeton University. Her doctorate was in Anthropology with specialization on China from Yale University. Along the way, she trained in Chinese at the fabled Stanford Chinese language center in Taiwan. 

In 1982, she came to teach in the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania and work with the University Museum. Among other work, she curated a major exhibition on Buddhism, which was visited by the Dalai Lama. At the time of her arrival in Philadelphia, many Indochinese refugees had immigrated following the Vietnam War and she was selected to join a team studying the adjustment strategies of Sino-Vietnamese refugees.  Heather then led one of five studies in the country on refugee youth for the Office of Refugee Resettlement. During this period, she also co-directed the Northern Thai Frontier project researching cross-border relations among highland minorities. 

In 1991, Heather was asked by the AMS Foundation to work with the Archaeology Department, Peking University to develop the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology there, which she was instrumental in completing.

Heather’s career focused both on China and on Southeast Asia with a concentration on Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Her research and development projects targeted ethnic diversity and the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples and communities.  She began her consultant’s career with UNESCO in 1993 when she was invited to work in the Phnom Penh Office, Cambodia to help revive archaeology in Cambodia. From 1997 to 2015, she served as a Senior Consultant in the Culture Unit of UNESCO Bangkok.  There, she developed, oversaw, and coordinated cultural and social development projects covering issues ranging from the protection and development of World Heritage sites and protected areas to the prevention of trafficking and unsafe migration of young ethnic minority women and men from Yunnan, China to Thailand.  This included creating culturally and linguistically appropriate HIV/AIDS, trafficking, and drug prevention materials in minority languages.  

Specifically, Heather worked on projects aimed at integrating preservation and development of World Heritage sites in the Old Town of Lijiang in Yunnan province and the Hani Rice Terraces in Honghe, Yunnan, seeking to harmonize the perceived conflict between preservation and economic development (especially tourism).  She also developed and oversaw Lao’s first eco-tourism project in Luang Namtha. 

More recently, Heather focused on the importance of intangible cultural heritage to communities today, the rights of indigenous peoples and communities at World Heritage sites and protected areas, and the role of culture in development.  In 2016 and spring 2018, she worked with the Rawang and other indigenous communities in the Hkakaborazi National Park in northern Myanmar, an area being nominated for Natural World Heritage status. 

In 2017, Heather served as the Social Impact Assessment Consultant for the IUCN project titled “The Sustainable Management of Peatland Ecosystems in Mekong Countries”, conducting consultations with villagers in Champassak, Lao PDR and Koh Kong, Cambodia. Also for IUCN, in 2017, she monitored communities participating in a community fisheries project in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Most recently, in fall 2018, she was contracted by UNESCO to participate on the UNDP/World Bank organized team to conduct a Post Disaster Needs Assessment in Lao PDR. The flood disaster was triggered by unusually heavy rains and typhoons during the 2018 rainy season, but most importantly, by a dam breech in Attapeu Province in southern Laos. 

In addition to teaching in the Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania from 1981 to l991, Heather served as a Visiting Professor at the American University of Paris, and had an affiliation with Southwest Minzu University, and Southwest Jiaotong University, both in Chengdu, Sichuan, China.

Heather is survived by her loving husband, anthropologist and filmmaker David Feingold, and by her brother, Howard Peters, and his loving family. Her memory lives on in the lives of her students, friends and colleagues around the world, and those touched by the fierce grace that characterized her committed life, too soon cut short.

Visitation from 10:30-11:00 am and Funeral Service at 11:00 am, Friday, May 14th at West Laurel Hill Funeral Home, Inc. 225 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

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