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Meeting a Current Challenge

To inspire fellow Indians to improve their health, two men swim off Alcatraz

September 16, 2003|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In his native Lakota Sioux tongue, Richard Iron Cloud knows the word for the gamble he is about to take -- braving the treacherous currents of the San Francisco Bay off Alcatraz Island for a frigid 1 1/2-mile swim to the mainland.

"Zuya," he says -- a phrase that once meant to "go on a war party." But its modern usage, "to look for adventure," better defines the hulking Iron Cloud, a health official at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Bobbing on a small fishing boat just off the Alcatraz shore Monday morning, Iron Cloud and Armando Black Bear, both novice swimmers, want to make a point to all those out-of-shape reservation residents sitting in front of their TV sets back home in the Black Hills of South Dakota: You can get healthy. You can change your life.

The sprawling reservation, home to 39,000 Lakotas, is among the poorest places in America, a 100-mile-wide swath of sovereign Native American territory where diseases such as alcoholism, diabetes and heart disease have become fierce killers.

The 47-year-old Iron Cloud, a gentle man with flowing black hair, has already surpassed the reservation's average life expectancy of 45. But to change the prevailing lifestyles at Pine Ridge, he knows he must first conquer something else: his own fear of deep water. "It's those churning rough swells, the black water," he said before the swim. "It's murky and unknown. Anything could be down there."

At 9 a.m., he and the 22-year-old Black Bear invoke several Native American prayers in a musical chant. Then, like escaping convicts straight from the folklore of this old prison fortress, they take the breathtaking plunge into the bay's 60-degree waters and begin the long pull toward the distant shore.

Iron Cloud instantly feels his head pound from the chill. Then he does something instinctive: He begins to swim, aided by his flippers. One fear has already been eased by his hosts at the city's South End Rowing Club, who have assured him that no swimmer has ever been attacked by a shark in bay waters.

Yet there are other dangers out here, including the ever-changing waters and his own possible lack of stamina.

The swim was sponsored by PATHSTAR, a program run by a Bay Area pediatrician to inspire healthier lifestyles among Native Americans. Nancy Iverson, a South Dakota native and physician who has volunteered at Pine Ridge's only hospital, met Iron Cloud in 1998 and invited him to come to San Francisco.

Now here she is, treading water beside both swimmers. As the 145-pound Black Bear makes a dash for shore, Iron Cloud holds back, doing the back float, discarding his goggles when they fill with water. With Iverson offering encouragement, the 285-pound Iron Cloud begins an unwieldy looking doggie paddle as a small flotilla of boats hovers to help gauge the ever-changing bay currents.

Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Every time Iron Cloud finds a rhythm, a foot-high wave breaks across his head, slapping his face, the salt water stinging his eyes. Back home, his friends and family had told Iron Cloud he was crazy to go swimming in deep water. As he swallows more water, he now wonders whether they were right.

"You're doing great, Richard!" Iverson assures him. "The waves are out here dancing with you! There are a lot of prayers holding you up!"

Without a wetsuit and with only a few days training, Iron Cloud -- who has swum only in creeks and streams for no more than an hour at a time -- knows that to finish this swim he will need one of the Lakota's four virtues: bravery. He has heard the stories of the roiling bay waters that bedeviled Alcatraz convicts for decades. He knows how the currents and fog can silently sweep in and confuse a swimmer.

But Iron Cloud, who runs a diabetes prevention clinic in his hometown of Porcupine, S.D., also knows the reservation lifestyle can be no less dangerous. He recently lost a 47-year-old cousin to diabetes, in the end watching him waste away on a kidney dialysis machine.

Studies show that half of American Indians older than 45 are diabetic. But officials say the Pine Ridge rate is even higher due to a diet rich in sugar from soft drinks and fat from fried foods. Iron Cloud, who has a radio talk show called the "Diabetes Prevention Hour," says students in one eighth-grade class are all already over 200 pounds -- becoming prime candidates for diabetes and early death.

As the weak September sun rises, the swimmers zigzag across the harbor, at first pulled west by the early tide and later pushed back east by the inward sweep of water. The fishing boat and three smaller craft help the men negotiate a steady stream of bay barges, cruise ships, yachts and lumbering container ships.

Struggling for direction, fighting off leg cramps, Iron Cloud still does not ignore the beauty he encounters here. He watches as a curious seal surfaces a few feet away, followed by a persistent cormorant that swims past on the bay surface.

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