Alcatraz Swimmers Elizabeth Best Tina Voight
Courtesy Colin Gift
Elizabeth Best (Colville Confederated Tribes) gets encouragement from South End Rowing Club (San Francisco) support swimmer Tina Voight as they swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco on October 19, 2015.

Building Healthy Habits: Alcatraz Swimmers Help Others


In September 2003, Lakota Sioux Richard Iron Cloud and Armando Black Bear, novice swimmers from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the Badlands of South Dakota, swam from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shore in the first PATHSTAR Alcatraz swim.

Asked why they braved the treacherous currents and frigid temperature of the San Francisco Bay, Iron Cloud replied, “Zuya,” a Lakota phrase that once meant to “go on a war party.” For the two men, the crossing was a symbolic 1.5-mile war party to fight diabetes and inspire healthier lifestyles among Pine Ridge and other Native Americans.

That tradition continued on October 19, 2015 when Native Americans made the crossing from the “Rock” to San Francisco to conclude this year’s annual PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week. The eight-day event is a component of a year-round program to encourage healthy eating and a stay-active lifestyle among Native Americans who have the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the United States, according to the Indian Health Service.

“I remember dreaming about being part of a team to encourage Native Americans to reclaim healthy lives of meaning and purpose. It’s been incredible to see the dream manifest and flourish, from our first swim week in the infancy of PATHSTAR to this year’s robust and dynamic program, with 13 participants, spanning 5 decades in age and representing Native communities in South Dakota, Washington, and California,” said Dr. Nancy Iverson, founder and director of PATHSTAR.

“As we celebrate the program’s blossoming into its ‘teen years’ with our 13th PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week this year, we offer enormous thanks to the vital community of teachers, swimmers, pilots, coaches, gardeners, health professionals—and to each and every one of our remarkable champions,” Iverson said.

Native Americans from South Dakota, Washington and California, and South End Rowing Club (San Francisco) support swimmers, celebrate the completion of their October 19, 2015 swim from Alcatraz Island to the SERC. The swim was the last event of the eight-day PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week (Oct. 11-19) in San Francisco. (Courtesy Colin Gift)

Many swim week participants regard the Alcatraz crossing next to impossible prior to completing a series of training swims led by experienced open water swimmers from the South End Rowing Club (SERC), San Francisco. SERC member Bob Roper said the 63-degree water temperature was a record for October. He added that California costal waters were 2 to 3 degrees warmer than usual, probably due to El Niño.

Eloy Martinez, (Southern Ute), a member of the band of Native Americans who occupied Alcatraz in November, 1969 and remained for 19 months before they were removed by federal authorities, offered a sage blessing and prayer for a safe swim.

“What these people are doing is very important. I lost my son to diabetes,” Martinez said following the prayer. “It takes a lot of courage to swim Alcatraz and it carries a powerful message about the importance of exercise to help prevent diabetes.”

The Alcatraz swim has always been a non-competitive event, and the swimmers and their swim supporters finished the last stretch of the Alcatraz crossing and came ashore together at the South End Rowing Club in approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.

The support swimmers, known as “swim angels,” accompany each participant. This year marked the first time selected returning Native participants served as swim angels.

“The ability to help someone make it all the away across and to see their excitement and joy that they accomplished it was a breath taking reward for me,” said third-time participant and swim angel Theresa Bessette (Colville Confederated Tribes), Plummer, Idaho.

Theresa Bessette, (Colville Confederated Tribes), Shawna Jackson (Hoopa), and South End Rowing Club (San Francisco) support swimmer, Gabor Lengyel, jump into the water to start their October 19, 2015 swim from Alcatraz Island to San Francisco. (Courtesy Colin Gift)

Patricia Smith, (Sioux/Hoopa) a Type 2 diabetic, was a member of the Chapa-De Indian Health Program (Auburn/Grass Valley, California) swim week team. A first-time participant, she discovered that the cold Bay water helped to completely resolve her shoulder pain, “After practicing the breast stroke all of this time I made the swim using the back stroke,” she said.

While the Alcatraz swim is the iconic cornerstone of the swim week program, the participants (aged 17-59), were immersed in an intensive week of communal living focused on good nutrition, fitness activities and educational opportunities with an emphasis on authentic traditions and healing. Activities ranged from gardening workshops and visits to farmer’s markets, to kayak/paddleboard outings, sessions with lifestyle and health/fitness coaches, and yoga and Pilates sessions.

It was the seventh swim week for Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux participant Nakina Mills. “I continue to learn more about healthy nutrition. I really enjoyed doing our own food measurements and being able to prepare the meals for two days. I am a hands on learner and this helped with my ability to be able to do it on my own and being able to take this back to my own household,” she said.

Mill’s daughter, Matagi I’atala, and Red Cloud High School friend, Jacob Cousin, were first-time swim week participants. “I liked being able to bring them with me as we need to start with young people about the importance of eating healthy and exercising,” Mills said.

Healthy eating starts with nutritious food. PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week participants hold cups of seeds they sowed at a gardening workshop by master gardener Avis Licht at her garden in Woodacre, California. (Courtesy PATHSTAR)

Since returning home, Mills said she has noticed that Matagi and Jacob are paying attention to their daily sugar intake and sharing this with their peers. And her plan to have healthy snacks at her 4-year old son Shaidiem’s day care center paid off. On Halloween, the youngsters received oranges that looked like pumpkins and bananas that resembled ghosts.

Kristen Bradley, a first-time program participant and a Chapa-De diabetes educator and dietician, said, “Watching the impact of lifestyle changes unfold in front of our eyes was inspirational… Having the opportunity to make these changes over 8 consecutive days with the help of fellow participants and health educators was invaluable.”

A non-Native, Bradley added that many successes were achieved over the week such as significant weight loss and a 20 percent decrease in insulin use. “Some participants also learned how to care for themselves and prevent hypoglycemia in light of dietary changes and increased physical activity,” she said.

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation swimmers Jacob Cousin, Matagi I’atala (right arm raised) and her mother, Nakina Mills, on their way from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco, the finishing point of the October 19, 2015 swim. (Courtesy Colin Gift)

Theresa Bessette, a Type 2 diabetic, received the Starfish award in recognition of her outstanding lifestyle changes. She quit smoking, improved her diet and has lost 189 pounds since first participating in the program in 2013.

Swim week participants make a year-long commitment as ambassadors for healthy change, sharing their experience and successes with their family, friends and tribal communities.

Fifth-time participant Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes), Omak, Washington; is the founding member of the Colville Tribes swim week team. “This year we got some really good in-depth composting lessons at master gardener Avis Licht’s garden in Woodacre (California) and I want to implement a composting program in the Colville Tribes community gardens next spring,” she said.

Martinez’s teammate and second-time swim week member Elizabeth Best, Spokane Valley, Washington, hopes to work with the YMCA to start a diabetes prevention group for American Indians and Alaska Natives in the Spokane area.

Chapa–De swim team member Shawna Jackson (Hoopa) planned to cut her hair after completing her first-time swim: “I wanted to do this to symbolize the start of a new, healthier life,” she said.

Jackson plans on teaching gardening at the Hoopa reservation near Eureka, California, and showing people some of the Pilates exercises she learned during the swim week. A diabetic, she also wants to start a pre-diabetic program on the reservation.

Regular exercise is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. Pilates instructor Joey Levinson assists Sally Hutton (Colville Confederated Tribes), Shawna Jackson (Hoopa), and Sherelle Cleveland (Colville Confederated Tribes) at the Saint Francis Memorial Hospital, San Francisco. PATHSTAR volunteer Randy Brown exercises behind the women. (Courtesy PATHSTAR)

American Indians have a long history of helping others. Sarah Duffy, visiting from County Mayo, Ireland, was on the shore to greet the Native participants at the finish of their Alcatraz swim. She acknowledged the Choctaw (Oklahoma) people’s act of kindness in 1847, when they donated $170 to aid Irish people starving to death during the potato famine, and she congratulated the PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week participants for their dedication to inspire a healthier lifestyle in their communities.

RELATED: How the Choctaws Saved the Irish

“Both the kindness of the Choctaw people who had such meager resources of their own and the amazing and inspiring accomplishments of the swim week participants shows that anything is possible when you put your mind to it.” Duffy said.

PATHSTAR is a non-profit committed to inspiring and revitalizing sustainable health and well-being practices within Native American communities by providing support and advocacy in overcoming the geographic, economic, and political obstacles that impact food availability, eating habits and lifestyle choices.

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