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Paper Cranes - History students make origami for peace

Carly Gutzmann (14) and Michelle Reed (14) are friends who live in Minnesota. In the fall of 2006, they decided to make a documentary for National History Day. The topic that year was “Triumph and Tragedy in History.” They called their documentary The Art and Soul of Topaz Relocation Center.

They wanted to do a documentary about tolerance and when they came across a book called Topaz Moon, they knew they had found their topic. The book is about Chiura Obata, a Japanese American painter interned at Topaz Relocation Center. Both girls love art and were immediately inspired by these paintings and how Obata’s art school at Topaz helped the internees cope with life in the camp. They worked on this ten minute documentary for eight months. They had to learn how to do in-depth research on their topic, write a script, and use the video software. Each girl complimented the other. Carly is a wizard at the software technology and finding music; Michelle is excellent at research and writing. Their video made first place at the Minnesota regional competition and they made it to the top seven documentaries at the state competition, out of over two hundred documentary entries.

Their work on this project taught them that they want to be part of the solution to creating a more tolerant world and that one person can make a difference. They are aware that imprisoning people because they look like the enemy could easily happen again in today’s suspicious and fearful climate and hope to illustrate that, even though we may look different on the outside, fundamentally we are all the same on the inside.

After watching the film Paper Clips, which is a documentary about a school that collected a paper clip for every person killed during the Holocaust, Michelle had the idea to design a memorial for the Japanese Americans interned during World War II. She wanted to make origami paper cranes and display them in a Plexiglas box someplace. Carly loves making paper cranes, too, so she joined the effort.

In June of 2007, Michelle and Carly sent 350 paper cranes that they had made to Jane Beckwith from the Topaz Museum to take to their annual pilgrimage. Although Carly and Michelle were not at the pilgrimage to Topaz in 2007, Jane set up a table so the Japanese Americans could make origami paper cranes in honor of their loved ones who were at the camp and to sign the cranes that Michelle and Carly had sent. Earlier this summer, Jane sent the cranes back and the original 350 cranes had grown to over 1,200!

Michelle and Carly’s goal is to get anyone interested in promoting peace involved in making the cranes. The plan is to give the first 11,212 cranes to the Topaz Museum because the people there were instrumental in helping them with their documentary about Topaz. The next 120,313 will go to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles—one paper crane for every Japanese American interned during World War II. If there are more, they will be dispersed among the different camps.

This project has taken on a life of its own since the Japanese American National Museum’s conference last July in Denver, Colorado. The girls were invited to present their documentary and they also had an origami crane booth set up. Over the two days of the conference, people made over 1,100 cranes! Many people signed the wings of loved ones who were interned. They met countless wonderful people at the conference and came home with three pages of email addresses for people who wanted to know how to make cranes for the project! They are hearing about people who are having crane making parties, teachers who plan to integrate the project into their curriculum, and internees who are feeling validated and honored by the project.

They have met so many amazing people on their journey. Their stories are beautiful, heartbreaking and, ultimately, uplifting. Alice Hirai said “the white people spit on me, then just a baby, and did all kinds of bad things. But, I can choose to hate or choose to forgive. I choose forgiveness.” What a lesson for all of us.

Recently, a clip of their documentary was aired on Minnesota Public Radio and they are starting to get some media attention for their project. They must spread the word if they are going to reach their goal – it will not be so hard if people help.

Besides working to build a more tolerant America, Carly and Michelle enjoy training their dogs, Kira and Mira, in agility training. Carly loves music and plays the trumpet, guitar and piano. She also loves the outdoors and gardening. Michelle loves languages and studies German and Latin. In addition, she is in the Tanzgruppe, a German folk dancing group. Both girls love reading and traveling. Michelle has been to Japan and found the people there gracious, kind, funny and wonderful.

Most Americans come from someplace else and Carly and Michelle are no exception. They both hail from Europe, mostly Germany. Both girls are dedicated to building tolerance and respect between cultures and are honored to tell the story of the Topaz art school and to be the conduit for building a more peaceful society.

They would like anyone, of any race, who wants to participate in this memorial to send them as many cranes as they would like to make. If they know someone who was in an internment camp, they would like them to write the name on the wing of the crane. Most important, if they have a story to share, please send it.

Send letters and cranes to:

Paper Cranes
c/o SGI
2750 Blue Water Road
Eagan, MN 55121

Website: Online soon!
They are grateful for the support and sponsorship of SGI by allowing all mail to be sent to them.

* This article was edited by Mary Reed, Michelle’s Mother.

© 2008 Carly Gutzmann and Michelle Reed

origami orizuru student project students Topaz utah World War II