Mason students inspired by connection with leaders of Peruvian indigenous group

students in a room watching a film on a screen
Students watched “Guardians of the Forest,” an award-winning documentary produced by Mason professor Michael Gilmore. Photo by Madison Rudolf/Strategic Communications

For Amy Fuller, the screening of the documentary “Guardians of the Forest” and the talkback with leaders of the Maijuna indigenous group in Peru was a one-of-a-kind experience.

“It was really special,” said Fuller, a George Mason University senior and president of Mason’s Student Environmental Justice Alliance (SEJA). “It’s not something that has happened on campus before.”

“Guardians of the Forest” is an award-winning documentary produced by Mason associate professor Michael Gilmore, who for 24 years has worked closely with the Maijuna, an endangered group fighting for biological and cultural survival among the pressures threatening the greater Amazon rainforest: logging, poaching, industrial agriculture, and mining.

The Peruvian government is also planning to build a highway through the Maijuna’s heavily forested ancestral lands, which the group says will devastate the area.

two students in a virtual meeting on a laptop
After the documentary viewing, Mason students had the opportunity to speak with leaders of the Maijuna indigenous group in Peru. Photo by Madison Rudolf/Strategic Communications

While the screening was impactful, Gilmore said it was the associated virtual Q&A with two Maijuna leaders and their subsequent conversation with members of Mason’s Native American Indigenous Alliance (NAIA) that was most compelling.

“What I hope the students got out of it,” said Gilmore, who is part of the School of Integrative Studies (SIS) “was an appreciation for indigenous cultures, the Amazon rainforest, and the challenges that face indigenous people worldwide in the fight for their ancestral lands and cultural survival.”

Also appearing at the April 13 event, presented by Mason’s Institute for a Sustainable Earth and SIS, were Andrew Wingfield, an associate professor in SIS and Mason alum, who has played a leading role in integrating sustainability into Mason’s curriculum; Jeremy Campbell, assistant director for strategic engagement at ISE and a cultural anthropologist who studies land conflicts and environmental changes in the Brazilian Amazon; and Jacob Wagner, the film’s director.

Mason psychology major Sara Jefferson, NAIA’s vice president of outreach and a member of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe of Charles City County, Virginia, called the event mind-broadening.

“I feel a lot more motivated to be able to help the Maijuna,” she said. “I feel really fortunate to have had this opportunity to be able to talk with them one-on-one and learn more about the differences and similarities between North American Natives and South American Natives.”

Mason history major Mariko Nojima-Schmunk, NAIA’s treasurer and a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, said the event reminded her of what NAIA is all about: “the collaboration and the allyship that we can build with Indigenous communities across the globe to help make a real change.”

“I was so inspired by the solidarity between the Maijuna and students of Mason’s Native American and Indigenous Alliance,” said PhD student Elizabeth Schierbeek, a member of the event planning committee and a graduate teaching assistant in Mason’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy. “I hope that they and other Mason students feel empowered to stand up for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination in the Amazon, the United States, and around the globe.”