PATHSTAR Alcatraz swimmers present at Aii, March 17-20. PATHSTAR participants (left to right): Clarita Seludo (Tlingit, Raven Halibut Clan), Alaska; PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson, California; Joey Cohen and Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes), Washington; Zolina Zizi (Cheyenne, Arikara, Creek), California; and Wicahpiluta Calenderia (Rumsen Ohlone,/Apache), California. (American Indian Institute/University of Oklahoma)

PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week Members Encourage Wellness Conference Attendees to Challenge Themselves

Pete Verral
April 15, 2013

Members of the 2012 PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week joined health advocates from over 75 Native nations across the United States and Canada at the 12th Native Women & Men’s Wellness Conference, March 17-20, in San Diego, California.

The PATHSTAR team presented the special plenary keynote: “From the Badlands to Alcatraz…and Beyond!”

Zolina Zizi, a two-time PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week participant, said the main message of the presentation was to go out and try something new, even if it sounds like the craziest idea in the world. “If it can change your life for the better, what’s stopping you?” she said.

PATHSTAR participants (left to right): Suzanne Greva, PATHSTAR volunteer, California; Joey Cohen and Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes), Washington; PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson, California; Wicahpiluta Calenderia (Rumsen Ohlone,/Apache), California;  Clarita Seludo (Tlingit, Raven Halibut Clan), Alaska; and Zolina Zizi (Cheyenne, Arikara, Creek), California. PATHSTAR works with Native American communities to encourage healthy nutrition and active lifestyle practices. 2013 PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week details at: Aii details at: (American Indian Institute/University of Oklahoma)

The American Indian Institute (Aii), a University of Oklahoma Outreach program, hosts the annual conference. The Aii has served tribal communities throughout Indian Country for more than 60 years.

This year’s conference theme was “In Balance,” inspired by the artwork of Dana Tiger, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The focus was on restoring the mind, body and spirit.  Keynote speakers gave presentations on improving health, quality of life and opportunity; from the power of resiliency and education to achieving the impossible through teamwork and perseverance.

The Alcatraz Swim Week is a component of San Francisco-based PATHSTAR’s year-round activities to inspire healthy nutrition and active lifestyle practices in tribal communities. The swim week is an intensive, hands-on program that focuses on lifestyle coaching, healthy nutrition education and fitness activities.  Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, were the first to participate in the inaugural 2003 swim week.

The week ends with the iconic Alcatraz to San Francisco swim in frigid water and perilous tides. Most participants are novice swimmers at best and have just six days to train. The 2013 program will be held October 6-14. Application packets can be downloaded at

Zolina Zizi (Cheyenne, Arikara, Creek), California; Shelli Martinez and Joey Cohen (Colville Confederated Tribes), Washington; Clarita Seludo (Tlingit, Raven Halibut Clan), Alaska; and Wicahpiluta Calenderia (Rumsen Ohlone/Apache), California;  joined PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson and swim week volunteer Suzanne Greva at the conference.

PATHSTAR participants (left to right): Zolina Zizi (Cheyenne, Arikara, Creek), California; Wicahpiluta Calenderia (Rumsen Ohlone/Apache), California; Clarita Seludo (Tlingit, Raven Halibut Clan), Alaska;  Joey Cohen and Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes), Washington; and PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson, California. (American Indian Institute/University of Oklahoma)

The PATHSTAR team’s panel presentation, “From the Badlands to Alcatraz…and Beyond!”  shared with conference attendees the challenges and triumphs they experienced and the seeds they brought home to inspire and restore healthy living in their communities.

“Our week in San Francisco emphasized the power of positive thinking and focusing on our goals, not our problems,” Martinez, a two-time swim week participant, said. “The support system was set in place, education on proper diet and fitness was implemented and we had obstacles to overcome every day. Our success was a community effort and came to light because others believed in our potential.”

Reflecting the conference’s “In Balance” theme, Martinez noted, “our minds had to be focused during the week, our bodies were being conditioned to the freezing water and our spirits were lifted by the support team, the good medicine of healthy food, drinks and exercise and by our ancestors watching over us. Our mind, body and spirit had to be in balance to ensure our success,” she said.

This past March, Martinez helped organize the Colville Future Olympians Ski Program for tribal youth after receiving a phone call from Suzy Chaffee, captain of the 1968 U.S. Women’s Olympic ski team.  Chaffee co-founded the Native Voices Foundation (now called the Native American Olympic Team Foundation) that has inspired ski areas across North America to invite tribal youth back to their ancestral lands to ski and snowboard.  Chaffee joined the Colville youth for an outing at a local ski resort.

Martinez, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes Diabetes Prevention Program, promotes a healthy lifestyle through various community activities ranging from nutritious grocery shopping excursions, walking with family and friends, high intensity interval training (HIIT) and yoga instruction. She’s started a Facebook group for a 7.96-mile walk/jog/run this May and wants to introduce people to kayaking and paddle boarding, which she enjoyed during the PATHSTAR swim week. “The best exercise is when you don’t realize you’re exercising–that’s the key to sticking with it!” she said.

One of the presentations Martinez attended during the March Aii Wellness conference was “Hands On Nutrition Education Strategies to Fight Obesity in Native Americans” operated by the Oklahoma City Indian Health Clinic. The program includes a diabetes prevention camp for Native youth after school programs. Martinez plans to share program strategies with her local after school program.   

Fellow Confederated Colville Tribes member, 56-year-old Joey Cohen, remarked that probably most surprising for the conference participants was the age range (early 20s to mid 50s) of the PATHSTAR team members, “and how we came together to promote a healthy lifestyle.  They were in shock to know that we swam the entire way (from Alcatraz to San Francisco) without wet suits, and even at my age I was able to complete the swim.  I let them know that it’s never too late to strive for a healthy lifestyle and overcome obstacles, ” she said.

Cohen’s healthy life style regimen includes working out on an exercise bike, treadmill and elliptical trainer.  She hopes her son will follow her example. She participates in the Colville Tribes Diabetes Prevention Program activities and training and encourages her co-workers to participate.

Cohen also attended the conference presentation by the Oklahoma City Indian Health Clinic. “They gave a talk on community gardens and how to build a simple garden bed. I think that would be something we could do in our communities reservation wide–particularly in the housing compounds where yard space is limited,” she said.

Zolina Zizi noted that the PATHSTAR presentation couldn’t have fit more perfectly with this year’s Aii conference theme. “If your mind and spirit are in balance, you can still be thrown off because your body isn’t quite there yet.” All three things are needed to be in balance for a good, healthy, happy life,” she said.

Since the 2012 swim week, Zizi has been working with community garden projects in her hometown, Richmond, CA. “I’m also currently involved with my local Native American Health Center youth group to help bring back traditional teachings such as beading, making regalia and gathering, which includes picking fresh greens from the gardens.  To become healthy isn’t going to happen overnight.  It’s a lifetime of commitment.  I took that commitment with my family and community once I joined PATHSTAR,” she said.

With three children (two girls aged 3 and 8 and son, 7) and working two jobs, PATHSTAR team member Clarita Seludo has learned that “the little things you change in your daily routine can make a big difference on your own health. I’m still struggling to watch my food portion sizes and not have sugary, high calorie drinks,” she said.  “Every time I pick up a soda I think to myself, ‘do I really need this?’”

When shopping, Seludo parks the farthest away and walks to a store. She encourages family and community members to walk at least 30 minutes a day. “It doesn’t sound like very much, but once you do it, you’ll notice a difference,” she said. Her family has a history of diabetes and a brother is pre-diabetic. “This is the brother that I’m trying as hard as possible to get to participate with me in the PATHSTAR 2013 swim program,” she said.

PATHSTAR first participated in the Aii Native Women & Men’s Wellness Conference in 2004. Richard Iron Cloud (the first of the LAST–Lakota Alcatraz Swim Team) and Nancy Iverson shared their experiences from the first PATHSTAR Alcatraz swim week.

“The Aii team does wonderful work both with conference organization and content,” said Iverson. “It’s remarkable to be a part of a learning time that gathers people from across the U.S. and Canada.

“We appreciate the interchange, the learning for us as we hear about programs and resources throughout Indian country and the ongoing opportunity for continuing conversations about meeting challenges, recognizing possibilities and celebrating successes,” she said.