“Nobody ever really escapes from Alcatraz. Once you swim it, it stays in you forever.” True enough for the ever-increasing numbers who do this swim in extreme sports and triathlon circles but irrefutable for the group of swimmers heading out to Alcatraz Island at the start of the film “From the Badlands to Alcatraz.” The five Oglala Lakota have come from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation along the southern edge of the Badlands in South Dakota to take part in a weeklong San Francisco-based wellness program that culminates in a swim from Alcatraz to the San Francisco shore. Just as the prisoners who attempted to escape from Alcatraz were swimming for their lives, these youth, too, are swimming for lives—theirs and their families and friends— swimming on a mission for their tribe, reminding themselves why they are doing this: “Oyate kin nipi kte: So that the people will live…”
Listen to an interview with film director Nancy Iverson about the Alcatraz swim
On September 15, 2003, Richard Iron Cloud and Armando Black Bear, from Pine Ridge, made history as the first two Lakota men to complete solo swims from Alcatraz as participants in a program called PATHSTAR. The night before arriving in San Francisco, Richard Iron Cloud led a traditional talking circle in the Badlands, close to his home in Porcupine, one of a handful of villages scattered across the Pine Ridge Reservation. Pine Ridge, home of up to 40,000 Lakota, sits in Shannon and Jackson counties, two of the poorest in the United States, with a median per capita income of under $4000/year. Unemployment rates range from 85-90%, the school dropout rate is 70% and the average life expectancy is 20 years less than the US average, lower than anywhere in the Western hemisphere except for Haiti. Of those who make it to age 40, over half contend with diabetes and heart disease.
Enter San Francisco pediatrician Dr. Nancy Iverson, originally from South Dakota. Deeply moved by the disaster of the horrific Wounded Knee massacre and compelled by the ongoing tragedy of lifestyle-related disease and early death she witnessed when working at Pine Ridge’s Indian Health Service Hospital, she vowed to help restore the well-being of people living on Pine Ridge. Utilizing San Francisco’s unique environment, she developed a program for Pine Ridge residents to experience the Bay Area and immerse themselves in healthy nutrition practices, community activities, physical challenges, and—literally—in the icy waters of the San Francisco Bay! In recognition of the spiritual and cultural significance of Alcatraz for American Indians, the week culminates with the Alcatraz swim.
Iron Cloud and Black Bear, as the first of the LAST (Lakota Alcatraz Swim Team), were acclaimed as heroes in the Native, California, and South Dakota press. The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “The swim was the stuff of heroism, of the impossible being possible, fueled by nothing more than pure guts. And this was Alcatraz, its history well known even back in South Dakota.”
Combine the tribal reverence for the Lakota virtues of bravery, fortitude, generosity and wisdom with Iverson’s dedication to her dream of rekindling determination among those who sometimes hang on to bare wisps of hope, and the story continues.
Each year Iverson returns to Pine Ridge and brings people out to participate—to learn, to teach, to prepare food, to get active, and, especially, to ‘escape’ from Alcatraz, all in the spirit of creating a more healthful Pine Ridge. Encouraged by extraordinary San Francisco hospitality and know-how and enriched with traditional Lakota culture and wisdom, the Pine Ridge participants taste success. One young woman returns for a second time, and participants recruit their family members.
Alkapoane (pronounced ‘Al Capone’) White Calf join two sisters, Lisa and Kelly Water and Richard Iron Cloud’s sons, Arlo and Philip, to form the September 2005 PATHSTAR team. Along with Richard Iron Cloud as a leader and wisdom keeper, these five, willing to dare themselves into doing something ‘undoable,’ are the stars of ”From the Badlands to Alcatraz.”
The film weaves the past and present of both Alcatraz and the Pine Ridge Reservation into a vivid depiction of the awe-inspiring journey the five youth navigate. It follows the group’s first plunge into the San Francisco Bay through their personal and collective challenges, disappointments and triumphs as they strive to conquer both the Alcatraz swim and the dispiritedness connected to conditions on Pine Ridge. “From the Badlands to Alcatraz” brings to life the insight a Los Angeles man offered to Richard Iron Cloud: “You are an inspiration, not only to the Lakota, but to everyone who wishes to go the ‘extra mile’ in their lives.”