Swimmers celebrate their arrival in Aquatic Park, San Francisco, following a swim from Alcatraz Island.

Colin Gift

Swimmers celebrate their arrival in Aquatic Park, San Francisco, following a swim from Alcatraz Island.

American Indians Return to Alcatraz

Week-long Program Inspires Healthy Eating/Stay-Active Lifestyle to Combat Diabetes and Related Diseases

SAN FRANCISCO—For American Indians who jump into the frigid water surrounding Alcatraz Island, it's a special place—a place to begin or renew a mission to help restore Native health, stroke-by-stroke, by swimming from the Island to the San Francisco shore.

On October 14, Natives from South Dakota, Wisconsin, Washington and California launched the second decade of the swim that concluded the annual PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week, October 6-14, in San Francisco and surrounding Bay Area locales. The event is a component of a year-round program to encourage healthy eating and a stay-active lifestyle among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

 American Indian swimmers and PATHSTAR support swimmers arrive off Alcatraz Island to begin the second decade of the swim to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco. (Colin Gift)

Colin Gift

American Indian swimmers and PATHSTAR support swimmers arrive off Alcatraz Island to begin the second decade of the swim to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

The swim has become an iconic event, one that many participants regard as next to impossible prior to completing a series of training swims led by veteran open water swimmers (“swim angels”) from the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco. “I know it’s going to sound contrived, but the event is life-changing. It was euphoric. I’ll never look at the ocean the same way again, ” said Nellenda Rublico, a Cherokee Native and San Jose, California; resident.

"I had a wonderful swim compared to last year," said second-year participant Joey Cohen (Colville Confederated Tribes, Washington), Tonasket, Washington. "Last year I did the entire swim only doing the back stroke. This year I did the front stroke and had two wonderful swim angels. I admit that I wasn't scared this time."

While the Alcatraz swim is a cornerstone of the PATHSTAR program, the week’s events included shopping for and preparing healthy meals, visits to farmer’s markets, meetings with lifestyle coaches, yoga and Pilates sessions and a kayak/paddleboard outing.

Nellenda Rublico (Cherokee), San Jose, California; PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson, San Francisco, California; and kayak pilot Jeffrey Nothelphim, (Lakota Sioux), Pine Ridge, South Dakota; on their way from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco. (Colin Gift)

Colin Gift

Nellenda Rublico Cherokee), San Jose, California; PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson, San Francisco, California; and kayak pilot Jeffrey Nothelphim, Lakota Sioux), Pine Ridge, South Dakota; on their way from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

Swim week participants make a yearlong commitment as ambassadors for healthy change, sharing their experience with their family and community. Participants have returned home to develop community and school vegetable gardens, coach high school and community sports, work on anti-obesity initiatives and fitness and diabetes prevention programs. 

"I think the importance of this swim week is to spread the word about diabetes prevention within the Native American community," said third-year participant Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes, WA), Omak, WA.   "It offers the tools we need that we can bring back to our communities. It's inspiring to see people overcome the obstacles we face while we're here."

For Karen Elizabeth Wapato, Oganogan, WA; the Alcatraz swim and week's events served as a clarion call to return home and put what she learned into practice. "I now want to show people where the good food is available. Start making choices,” said the Confederated Colville Tribes member.

Shelli Martinez (Colville Confederated Tribes), Omak, Washington), gives a victory salute during her swim from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco. (Colin Gift)

Colin Gift

Shelli Martinez Colville Confederated Tribes), Omak, Washington), gives a victory salute during her swim from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco.

"Don't be afraid to go into that natural food store or to a farmer's market. Give yourself a chance to eat whole and see how your body likes that. Your body will usually thank you for it. Everything works so much better when you're not loading your body with McDonald's fries and cokes," she said.

As with most Natives, Stephanie Bealer’s family has a history of diabetes. “It’s important to come here for the swim week, taking the knowledge I gain and sharing it with my family and community,” said Bealer (Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin), Lemoore, California.  “Being here shows that it you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. With a healthy swim, a nutritious diet and exercise, almost anything is possible.”

“It’s absolutely fabulous that we have achieved a landmark by entering our second decade,” said PATHSTAR Director Nancy Iverson. “There is a great spirit and energy, and there are great people. We appreciate all the help of those who have contributed to the program and continue to help us out.

“Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota were the first to participate in the PATHSTAR Alcatraz Swim Week. Their message, “Oyate kin nipi kte: So that the people will live,” strongly resonates with all Native participants.

Joey Cohen (Colville Confederated Tribes), Tonasket, Washington; celebrates the completion of her swim from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco; with PATHSTAR support swimmers Suzanne Greva and Gabor Lengyel. (Colin Gift)

Colin Gift

Joey Cohen Colville Confederated Tribes), Tonasket, Washington; celebrates the completion of her swim from Alcatraz Island to the South End Rowing Club, San Francisco; with PATHSTAR support swimmers Suzanne Greva and Gabor Lengyel.

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American Indians Return to Alcatraz

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