Documentary on Lakota Alcatraz program will be shown in state

MITCHELL - Alcatraz isn't just a prison. It was also a symbol of freedom for five South Dakotans. A San Francisco pediatrician with South Dakota ties has splashed a light on the plight of poverty and lack of healthy eating choices on the Pine Rid...

MITCHELL - Alcatraz isn't just a prison. It was also a symbol of freedom for five South Dakotans.

A San Francisco pediatrician with South Dakota ties has splashed a light on the plight of poverty and lack of healthy eating choices on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and a program she created to help fight it.

Dr. Nancy Iverson produced and directed "From the Badlands to Alcatraz," which chronicles the journey of five young Oglala Sioux tribal members who take part in her Pathstar program that culminates in a swim in San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz to the shore.

Iverson said via e-mail that she knew the story better than anyone else and wanted to share the vision of the impossible becoming possible. She said she wants viewers to be awestruck with the bay's beauty and heroism of each Lakota participant.

"No part of this journey was easy and yet each Lakota found their way to do it," Iverson wrote. "Whether the focus is on something as vast as making inroads into the bleak conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation or as individual as encouraging someone to do the Alcatraz crossing, change can happen, one person at a time, enhanced by support and community building."


The documentary will be among four shown at the first Reel Dakota Film Festival at the Washington Pavilion Saturday in Sioux Falls. Screenings are slated for 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Schulte Room and 5 p.m. in Belbas Theater.

Festival programmer Julie Anderson Friesen said Iverson's documentary was chosen because of her and her subjects' roots and its narrative is gripping.

"I think it's inspirational in terms of the challenge faced by swimmers," she said. "The physical aspect of one week's training of swimming in the bay is an interesting and compelling story coming from a landlocked state like South Dakota."

The film was shown at the Black Hills Film Festival in Hill City in May. It has won seven awards at film festivals since April, including best U.S.A. documentary at the International Film Festival Ireland this month.

Iverson's father, Cliff, grew up in Sioux Falls and her mother, Vivian, was raised in Wessington Springs. She was born in Platte and lived there and in Parker until age 3, when she moved to Waterloo, Iowa.

She calls Sioux Falls home, where her aunt and three cousins live.

Wounded Knee's impact

Iverson worked at the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service during the 1990s, where she was deeply moved by the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre and ongoing tragedy of lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease and deaths of tribal members from childhood to their early 40s. More than half of those who make it past age 40 deal with both diseases.


The reservation has a median per-capita income of $4,000 a year, with unemployment rates of 85 percent to 90 percent. The average life expectancy is 20 years less than the U.S. average.

"I got to thinking there is a mortality rate going on here that has surpassed the massacre, but is not as dramatic as the massacre," she said in the film. "I just got to thinking there has got to be a way to make a difference."

The doctor created the Pathstar program in 2003 in which Richard Iron Cloud and Armando Black Bear became the first Lakota men to complete solo swims.

"For people not used to being active, there is often the mindset that they can't do something because they are not already good at it," she said in the film. "There is a lesson in there that you don't have to be good at something to start doing it.

"In a way, it's even more glorious to have that paradox of not being very good at it and having accomplished something extraordinary."

Five swimmers, one goal

The documentary features the experiences of the 2005 team -- brothers Philip and Arlo Iron Cloud, sisters Lisa and Kelly Waters and Alkapoane White Calf. The Iron Clouds are Richard's sons.

Whereas the Iron Cloud brothers came as part of a family tradition, Kelly Waters said the swim program sounded like a good experience to challenge herself.


Lisa Waters returned for a second journey, after the first one didn't hold as much meaning for her.

"My goal is to help other people," she said in the film. "But I realized I have to help myself do the swim."

The documentary's setting interchanges from the Badlands to the Bay area, showing the conditions on the reservation with Badlands scenery to the urban, thriving West Coast city.

Iverson said it was important to show those contrasts in landscape, both natural and economic, as a significant part of the story.

The film follows the group's journey in the bay -- from the first day getting acclimated to the water to the day when they ride a boat to Alcatraz to start their swim.

In addition, the group is depicted eating healthy meals at Iverson's home, visiting a farmers' market and preparing food acquired there.

Participants have made progress on the reservation by returning home with ideas and experiences to influence positive change, Iverson said via email.

Arlo Iron Cloud started a garden and has taught gardening classes this year. Lisa Waters Kaulaity worked for the Diabetes Program's Okiciyapi Wellness Center as a fitness technician through IHS and now lives on the Fort Apache Reservation in Whiteriver, Ariz.


"We continue to chip away at the reservation health crises," Iverson said via e-mail. "Yet there is still much work that needs to be done."

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