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Bill Paulson talks to ALC students about the process of making maple syrup the Native American way Monday afternoon.1 / 5
Jasmine Clark pours sap into a kettle that will be cooked down to maple syrup2 / 5
ALC student Theresa Paskey cleans out a recently drilled hole in a maple tree Monday afternoon.3 / 5
Travis Williams collects sap into a large bucket held by Roxanne Fairbanks Monday afternoon4 / 5
Bill Paulson shows students the strength of wet rawhide. The Rawhide string can be used to tie down a rawhide drum. When dried out, the rawhide will shrink, making the drum tight.5 / 5

A group of Detroit Lakes students from the Alternative Learning Center walked through a sugar bush Monday afternoon right outside of Detroit Lakes.

The leaves crunched under their feet as their fingers touched the branches and the smell of smoke filled the air.

Typical instruction was out the window as they took in old, native stories about mother earth and respect.

"We believe everything has a spirit, and as we put the tobacco by the main tree, it will talk to all the other trees for us," said Roxanne Fairbanks, who choked up a bit with emotion as she was seeing a dream of hers come true that day.

That's because it was the very first educational youth outing for her newly-formed group called DEBWE.

"It means to tell the truth, and it's also an acronym for develop, educate, build, win and evolve," said Fairbanks, who, along with a few others in the community, has been working for three years to develop this non-profit organization.

DEBWE is open to anybody of any age, race, culture or religion, but the goal of the group is to teach local youth about Native American culture and the great outdoors.

"I think it's important because we want to keep them off of drugs and alcohol and teach them to respect elders," said Fairbanks, "There's too much of the wrong things, and we want to teach them the right way to live and the good things in life."

According to Fairbanks, the "good things" are found in nature and in the pride that comes with knowing who you are and living a good, clean lifestyle.

We'd like to be there for options," said Fairbanks's husband, Rob, who is also a DEBWE committee member. "This is a good place to come and find yourself -- to find some solitude and reflect what's going on around you and make your choices better."

Not only were ALC students getting a real-life lesson on this as they assisted in maple syrup production Monday, but so did other middle and high school students from Detroit Lakes' cultural collaborative classes as they took shifts going out to the property.

The land, located just inside the city limits on Highway 59 south, belongs to a little lady named Bea Tessman.

Known to many throughout the community, Tessman has agreed to let the DEBWE group use her 65 acres of land, which she believes is also Indian burial ground.

"When I first realized this was a burial ground was when we excavated for the house," said Tessman, "Under there I found Indian relics, and I knew I wanted to save it -- to preserve the land."

While DEBWE members are working on the possibility of purchasing the land and turning it into a real, physical youth center, right now they simply remain grateful to Tessman for her willingness to open up her property to anybody who wants to appreciate it.

"To offer this place up ... she really enjoys having the kids out here -- it just gave her another surge of energy," said Joe Carrier, the Native American education coordinator for the Detroit Lakes School District, adding that through the DEBWE program, students are able to learn about history, science, culture and language all in one.

"There's an inner teaching about it," said Carrier, "You learn about things that aren't necessarily taught in classes, and you can't bring them into the classes -- the kids are attentive and appreciative of it."

ALC senior Tiffany Oellien says that while she has a deep respect for nature, she was surprised when fellow students seemed to also respond to the class with equal respect and intrigue.

"It is a good surprise, I'm glad they're respecting it," said Oellien.

Although the first real outing for DEBWE centered around learning about maple syrup and birch bark baskets, future projects include ricing, beading, powwows and bringing in elders for oral storytelling.

"It's a really good experience for some of us who are Native American and didn't' learn any of this stuff," said Sophomore Jasmine Clark, a self-proclaimed 'city girl.' "I knew there were a lot of stories with the Native American culture, but I never really knew them -- I'm proud that people are taking their time to teach us because now maybe it's something that I can pass on."

One of those people taking time to teach the Native American culture behind maple syrup production is Bill Paulson, who also facilitates seasonal camps for the Anishinabe on White Earth.

A DEBWE committee member, Paulson says they hope to get youth off the couch and actually feeling good about themselves.

"As an Anishinabe people, we've really lost who we're supposed to be," said Paulson. "By doing these camps it gives them a little bit of a basis about being stewards of the land and really about taking care of each other. So once they get that connection they can get forward into society and really have strong base of who they are and be strong in the world."

DEBWE members are meeting once a month at the library, and are hoping to recruit more community members to help enhance the program.

For more information, call Rob or Roxanne Fairbanks at 218-234-1192 or find DEBWE on facebook.