COTTONWOOD - Emilee Olson - who would have been 12 years old - loved horses, so it was only fitting that her sixth-grade classmates incorporate that into a project Tuesday to celebrate her birthday.
Olson was one of four children killed in the Lakeview School bus crash on Feb. 19, 2008, a dark day that will forever be etched into the hearts of everyone in and around the small community of Cottonwood.
"I'll say it till my dying day that 'the saddest day of all will be the day that nobody remembers her,'" said Traci Olson, Emilee's mother, who contacted artist John Sterner about doing a project with Emilee's classmates.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Lakeview sixth-graders Jennessa Louwagie, left, and Mariah Schuler paint American Indian horse sticks in honor of classmate Emilee Olson’s birthday. Olson, who died in the Feb. 19, 2008 bus crash in rural Cottonwood, would have celebrated her 12th birthday Tuesday.
"It had to be full of life, colorful and made you smile when you looked at it," Traci Olson said. "I don't want them to forget Emilee because she was a part of them."
Sterner explained to the students that he was part of the Sincangu Lakota tribe, from the Rosebud Sioux Nation, and that horses meant a lot to American Indians.
"When the first Europeans came over, we didn't have a name for a horse," Sterner said. "We only had dogs to help with getting food or carrying teepees, food or families. We called the horse Shunka, or 'big dog.'"
Sterner said that American Indian hunters could only walk about 8-15 miles per day. After the arrival of horses, hunters were able to travel much further in search of buffalo.
"Buffalo can be 1,200-2,400 pounds, can run 45 mph and jump eight feet high," Sterner said. "So when the horse came, it allowed people to be on equal ground with the buffalo."
Sterner said that thanks and honor were given to the horse, which became a beloved part of families.
"When the horse died, a Native American would find a nice stick, which was hard to do because there weren't very many trees," Sterner said. "There were only cottonwood trees by the water. They'd carve a horse-like shape out of the wood."
The sixth-grade class didn't have to travel like the American Indians did though, as Mike Lee and Sterner cut out wooden horses for each student.
"Think of something or someone you want to honor when you make your horse sticks," Sterner said. "You'll have the opportunity to paint your horse stick with images of all the things you think are honorable or important."
Traci Olson, who is also an early childhood and special education teacher at Lakeview, helped with the project, which was partially funded by a multicultural grant, along with sixth-grade teachers Andy Dollmann and Allyson Pesek and a number of other volunteers.
"The sixth-grade class is learning about Minnesota history and about Native Americans," Traci Olson said. "So this was perfect. It fits our family, too. Emilee wasn't about sadness or crying. She knew a room was better when she was in there."
Genesis Rodriguez decided to paint her horse a bold purple color.
"This is so much fun. It reminds me of Emilee a lot," Rodriguez said. "There are so many memories. She was a good person."
Tiana Hay remembered Emilee's favorite food at school.
"She liked hamburgers with fixings," Hay said. "It was her last meal."
Kayla Stapleton and Taylor Himley chose black as the main color for their horses. Both recalled fond memories of their fallen classmate.
"Emilee really liked Troy from 'High School Musical,'" Himley said. "I remember one day at recess, we were all singing like crazy."
Bridget Varpness recalled Emilee's favorite colors as pink and purple.
"I did my horse in her favorite colors," Varpness said. "This was a neat project to do about our friend."
The most difficult part of the creation seemed to be waiting for the paint to dry in order to proceed with the next step: adding real horse. Some students brought pieces of their own horse's mane. Sterner and Charlie Olson, Emilee's father, helped students adhere the hair to the wooden horse.
"I know Emilee would've been bouncing off the wall," Charlie Olson said. "I'm proud of her, but today, it's about all the other kids."
James Cable, who painted his horse white with black spots, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
"Emilee really liked horses, so this was a good project for her birthday," Cable said. "I really like stallions, so this was pretty cool."
Students also had the option of gluing on a saddle blanket. After the students were finished and helped clean up the area, they lined the horses up in Traci Olson's room to dry.
"It turned out better than we expected," Traci Olson said. "Emilee loved M&Ms and root beer floats. Before school gets out, the sixth-graders will also get to have root beer floats."