Plunging into healthier living 

Healthwise, kids on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation start with the deck stacked against them.

The median annual income there is $4,000. The average life expectancy is 20 years below the U.S. average. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease afflict half of adults. High-fat, high-sugar convenience-store foods are more plentiful than whole grains or fresh vegetables.

How to contend with such complex health and diet problems?

One way is to just dive right in. … Literally.

“From the Badlands to Alcatraz,” a film by San Francisco pediatrician Nancy Iverson screening during the seventh San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, tells the story of five post-high-school-age Lakota Indians who swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco in the name of pursuing healthier lifestyles.

Iverson, a South Dakota native, had been working at a hospital on the reservation and wanted to help.  

“I have spent so many years in hospital and clinic settings, so I know what doesn’t work is to give people lists of things or tell them what to do or what not to do,” Iverson says.

Instead, she invited five individuals to share her own approach to keeping fit: long swims in the chilly, scenic San Francisco Bay. Swimming has helped her cope with a debilitating back condition, so maybe it could help Lakota kids cope with their own challenges.

The film starts the way a lot of good stories do. The swimmers recount, “My friends thought I was crazy!” None had swum long distances before. Twenty-one-year-old Kelly White had never even swum at all.

The swimmers train for a week, shop at San Francisco farmers markets, and learn about cooking fresh, healthy foods. Then, it’s time to take the plunge.

At the end of their swim, each person’s courage and self-confidence is in full-force. Iverson’s hope is that the swimmers take that courage and self-confidence back to their everyday lives.

“There’s a lesson in there that you don’t have to be good at something to start doing it,” she says, over footage of improvised crawl strokes and faces in goggles, beaming with pride.

“It’s about empowering and creating heroes,” Iverson says. She knows that happens one step at a time, but so far she’s seen some inspired steps.

Swimmer Alkapoane White Calf, a 19-year-old janitor when the film was made, is now making the step to college. Others have rethought dropping out of high school and returned to finish.

And there’s been movement toward making a Pine Ridge convenience store a small grocery that sells produce.


S.F. Ocean Film Festival

Featuring 12 programs and more than 50 films

Where: Theatre 39, The Embarcadero and Beach Street, San Francisco
When: Wednesday through Feb. 7
Tickets: $8 to $12 per screening; $85 to $175 for passes
Contact: (415) 561-6251;
Note: “From the Badlands to Alcatraz” screens at 10 a.m.
Feb. 7; Iverson, swimmer Lisa Waters and program leaders Richard and Arlo Iron Cloud will speak after the screening.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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