American Indians swim in frigid waters from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore. (By Johan Wikman)

American Indians 'Swim For Life' From Alcatraz to San Francisco Shore

Pete Verral
10/26/11
By Johan Wikman

It's about 1.2 miles from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore, which doesn't seem a long swim until you consider the frigid, mid-50 degree water and perilous currents of the San Francisco Bay. On October 17, Native Americans from South Dakota, Alaska, Washington and the San Francisco Bay Area completed the swim—with just six days training.

Fred Crisp, one of the organizers and a San Francisco resident said, "Today's swim was truly the 'Magnificent Twelve,' with the oldest swimmer being 62 years old, and the youngest being 15 years old. Three of the 12 swimmers had only one swim before this, and all of the members had little or no experience on open water, especially cold waters such as the San Francisco Bay."

The event concluded the ninth annual PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Program, a week-long event, which ran from October 9-17. PATHSTAR, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, inspires active lifestyle and healthy nutrition practices in communities throughout Indian Country.

One goal of PATHSTAR is to counteract the diabetes epidemic affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives at disproportionate rates. When compared with the population as a whole, American Indians are three times more likely to die from diabetes-related complications, according to federal Indian Health Service statistics.? Obesity is a leading risk factor of diabetes, and Native youth are twice as likely to be overweight than are young people in the general population.

During the week prior to the swim, the participants visited farmer's markets and school programs, learned  healthy cooking practices and worked with dieticians and physical fitness experts. Following the program, they returned to their communities as ambassadors of change, sharing their experiences and ideas with family and friends.

The Lakota message, "Oyate kin nipi kte: So that the people will live," succinctly expresses the motivation for the participants.

Terry Mills, an Oglala Lakota member from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, said, "I plan to put what we have learned here to work on the reservation. We need to encourage more gardening of fruits and vegetables without the use of pesticides and chemicals. We learn a lot from each other. We bring some of our language, our culture. Anybody can do this—age is not an issue."

Zolina Zizi, a Cheyenne and Arikara Creek member from Richmond, California, plans to use the knowledge she gathered from the program to be a catalyst for change, helping youth get access to fresh produce. "I will be working on placing gardens in schools and getting healthy foods into schools. I will definitely spread the word."

Shelli Joy Martinez, a member of the Okanogan Indian Band of British Columbia and the Colville Federated Tribes in Washington expressed similar sentiments. "This was an exceptional experience with a dedication to a healthy lifestyle. This was about eating, learning, and how to prepare for a new lifestyle. By preparing for our swim, we learned that we can overcome any obstacle...."

The experience not only taught participants valuable lessons to reclaim their health, they built lifelong friendships and strong support networks. "I had an intense week of knowledge, friendship, and support to complete an event I didn't think I could," said Jeffrey Not Help Him, an Oglala Lakota member from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. "I did it.... There were sacrifices that I chose to make and they understood. I lost people I loved, but gained new friends. And I'm blessed, truly blessed. I see that through the ten thousand colors. When you say you can't, you can."

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