Just off the six lanes of Tamiami Trail, west of Florida's Turnpike and behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a secret gate leads to a backyard where dugout canoes rest under a chickee hut. Across the grass and through a sliding-glass door is a living room that doubles as the Medicine Signs Spiritual Center. Covered in cozy textiles and celestial bric-a-brac, the room is dark, save for the glow from red string lights and a dozen candles. On a Tuesday night in October, Houston Cypress leads a sacred circle of about 20 followers.
Dressed in khaki pants, a black T-shirt, and a costume-jewelry necklace that glitters like a disco ball, the 34-year-old, who is ordained as a Universalist minister, rattles off an opening prayer in English with a Miccosukee accent--a warm drawl with clipped, hard consonants.
"We'd like ta call in de messiah, de goddess, and de yogic oversouls," Cypress pronounces. He invites a litany of forces into the room: animal powers, our higher selves, and the White Buffalo Calf Woman (a messianic figure revered for teaching sacred ceremonies). Last, he calls in "our brothers and sisters of light, people like us who are trying ta make de world a better place."
Cypress' head seems to perpetually tilt back, his face beaming upward like a wise owl. This pose keeps his wire-rim glasses from sliding down his nose and his waist-length black hair off his forehead.
After a round of introductions, Cypress pulls out a small, glass, roll-on perfume vial. It's filled with rose oil.
"That will raise your vibration to, like, 320 megahertz," coos Denise Credle, one of Cypress' friends and the owner of the house.
"Dab it on your wrist," Cypress demonstrates gleefully just before passing the vial around, "and just blast off!"
Ever since the Miccosukee Tribe formally organized just more than 50 years ago (thus differentiating itself from the neighboring Seminoles, who organized just five years prior), its stated policy toward outsiders has been "Pohoan checkish," or in English: "Just leave us alone." But Cypress is an anomaly, bridging gaps between the secretive tribe and the outside world, between ancient traditions and modern reality.
For one, he's tech-savvy. Whereas his ancestors for years resisted writing down their language lest the white man learn it, Cypress totes his iPad to conferences and cranks out TV shows, blogs, and films. Also, he's openly gay -- or rather, "two-spirited," possessing both male and female traits. While non-Native Americans struggle with the legalization of gay marriage, Cypress has been exploring this more fluid concept of gender identity, one that was respected in some Native American cultures even before the onset of Christianity.
And these days, Cypress -- freed from the need to work a conventional job by a tribe subsidy of tens of thousands of dollars annually -- welcomes rather than shuns outsiders. He channels his energy into saving the Everglades by bringing visitors on airboat tours of his family's ancestral lands.
"Feel free to have a conversation with de White Buffalo Calf Woman," Cypress implores. After a moment of quiet meditation, he sends her "back to de stars."
Frank Allegro, a marketer who works with Cypress on Everglades issues, searches for the right words to describe his friend: "A great leader." Humorous. "Smart as shit."
"This guy is relatively young, but he's like a board of directors president," Allegro muses. "He's very results-oriented." At the same time, he has "a calling for a higher consciousness and healing. Maybe being two-spirit allows him to channel that. I don't know if it's his long hair that does it -- gives him that magical touch..."
Cypress remembers it was December 2012 when he and his cohorts decided to start a group they called Love the Everglades -- the night of the winter solstice.
"'Cause we're kinda galactic, right?"
West of downtown Miami, SW Eighth Street -- AKA Calle Ocho -- turns into U.S. Highway 41, AKA the Tamiami Trail. Eventually the landscape of fast-food joints and gas stations gives way to emptier roads and undeveloped lots. Many tourists will go no farther than the intersection with Krome Avenue, where a tall concrete behemoth juts unnaturally from this landscape: Miccosukee Resort & Gaming.
Farther west, the Trail narrows to two lanes. Anyone carrying on toward the assorted roadside airboat vendors might notice the fresh white concrete as they cross the mile-long bridge that was recently completed at a cost of $95 million to taxpayers. A full 18 miles past Krome Avenue, midway across the state, tourists can pop into the Miccosukee Indian Village to browse its gift shop or catch an alligator wrestler.
"Want to get high?" Cypress asks mischievously on an October morning as he strolls along a path here, through the gator exhibit. He passes the rose oil.
Just behind the gift shop is an access road where few outsiders ever venture but where most Miccosukee tribe members live.
Although the Miccosukees control more than 300,000 acres, the majority of that is wetlands. The living area of "the rez" is about the size of your average Miami gated community. On one side of the access road is a canal that separates the neighborhood from Tamiami Trail traffic. On the other side sits a single, tidy row of about 150 homes. The row is just one house deep.
Houses are built on piles of fill to elevate them above the River of Grass. Behind them, as far as the eye can see, are sawgrass and lily pads. A small "downtown" consists of a cluster of buildings: a school, a courthouse, a clinic.
Houston Cypress was born in November 1980 and grew up in one of these homes with his mother and about a dozen relatives. His maternal grandpa was from the Wind clan, his grandma from the Otter. Because the Miccosukees are a matriarchic society, he was an Otter.
"The Otter clan is the hotter clan," Cypress loves to brag.
Settling into a chair beside his lime-green house, Cypress explains that he came of age "B.C. -- before casino" -- when the traditional way of life, hunting and fishing, was no longer feasible and indigenous families had come to rely on Publix. He remembers munching on Cheetos as the family would gas up the car and cruise to Naples for day trips.
Cypress' uncle, Michael Frank, age 67, remembers that his own father would plant corn on tree islands in the swamp. There were so many birds back then, the skies would go dark at midday from flocks blocking out the sun. "When I was little, you'd see birds, animals, wildlife. You can't no more. It's just a dead skeleton out there."
For the majority of the 1900s, real estate developers and the government saw South Florida as a useless swamp that needed taming. The Army Corps of Engineers built a mind-blowing system of dikes and canals. Farmers discharged phosphorus-laden fertilizer that clogged and polluted the Glades. The Tamiami Trail -- the first road across the River of Grass -- blocked the natural north-to-south flow of water. The disruption to the ecosystem made hunting and fishing impossible. Many Miccosukees moved out of the wilderness and into houses along the Trail.
In this photo from Woody Hanson's archive, one of the adults is a woman and the other a man. Can you guess which is which?
Hanson Family Photographic Archives
"Houston was born when everyone was out of the Everglades already," Frank explains. "But when he was growing up, he enjoyed the Everglades. He's very knowledgeable about the Everglades."
Back then, "in terms of money, there was none. In terms of jobs, there were none," Cypress says. "We would look forward to school meals." They ate Vienna sausages or Spam with rice and tomato. If an uncle brought deer, fish, or turtle, grandma would make soup. "That was good! Eat the unborn! Yeah! Turtle eggs!" he says, only half-joking.
Cypress grew up speaking Miccosukee as his first language. His mom sewed traditional patchwork clothes. Most people supported their families through chickee building or traditional crafts. Cypress' grandpa made wooden canoes. Cypress remembers that he would "sing a certain song to ask for permission" to cut down the tree for the boat. Kids would play in the swamp. Trail-making was a favorite pastime.
Cypress says, "We were rich in culture, in medicine, in family. But money, no." He remembers getting hand-me-down clothes from the Baptist church on the reservation -- a pair of hip-hop pants was a favorite. Ditto a lavender raincoat with polka dots.
Kids grew up referring to anyone of the same generation in their clan as a brother or sister and to anyone of their parents' generation as an uncle or aunt. "You'd have your gang -- everyone in your clan and your friends," Cypress recalls. "Me and my buddies studied under the same medicine man. I was a nerd with my cousin Emily from the Bird clan."
He attended school on the reservation until tenth grade, when a favorite teacher quit. His mom then sent him to a school in faraway Everglades City, where he encountered his first rednecks.
"It was the Indians, blacks, and Mexicans versus whites," he recalls. "I didn't learn anything except Spanish." He was a Marilyn Manson fan, but his friends included hard-core Christians.
Around the same time, he began to accept that he was gay. Some Native American tribes had a word for boys who acted feminine: "berdache." The connotation, Cypress says, is of a "passive homosexual in a sexual relationship. AKA, a bottom."
"There's nothing wrong with being a bottom, especially if you're a talented bottom," he chuckles, "but it didn't reflect the totality of our being."
The 600 tribes in North America speak more than 200 languages, and in some of those, the word for gay is relatively neutral: "boy who goes around with the women all the time." In others, it's more insulting: "unmanly man." The Miccosukee word translates as "he-she," or "man-woman." Cypress recalls that he understood it was "something to be ashamed of."
His sophomore year of high school, he drafted a love letter to a male crush. His mother found it and confronted him. "I told her it was an exercise in fiction."
Ultimately, though, that "spurred me to come to terms with it. It was two years of agony knowing I was gay. I was afraid of abandonment. It was scary."
He decided to come out. "I contemplated it my whole senior year. I had a little ceremony, a little pomp and circumstance," he laughs. "I had my sacred herbs; I had to do my prayer. I'm a little drama queen."
His mother was accepting. But there was still the community to deal with. "There are bigots and assholes in any community. We have them too."
It would take time, but eventually, Cypress says, "some of those bigots became my mentors." The key would be channeling his energy for the good of the tribe.
"Our elders say, 'Our culture is the cure.'"
After a 20-minute airboat ride, Houston Cypress steps onto a wooden dock crowded by water lilies and cattails. As his black hair swings around his waist, five people from a Spanish-speaking TV crew follow him into a clearing.
Cypress explains that this is his family's tree island. Its Miccosukee name is "Antooch-chokole." In English, it translates as "where the little pot sits," because ancient cooking pots were found here. Neighboring islands likewise have colorful names: Stinking Hammock, Ask for It, and Burning Chickee -- the latter is also known as the Everglades Hilton.
The family island is now used only for sacred ceremonies and family parties. A freshly built wooden cabin -- his mom's "condo" -- is screened in because she's scared of snakes. She cruises out here on her hot-pink airboat.
Today, there are just a few signs of wildlife: a turtle shell decaying under a palm tree, wasps swarming under the wooden beams of a palapa, grasshoppers having furious grasshopper sex.
The Native American presence on this peninsula goes back centuries before the arrival of Ponce de Leon in 1513. More indigenous groups were forced southward from what is now Georgia and Alabama as the white man from the north advanced. War was waged throughout the 1800s, and natives were either killed or relocated to settlements in the West. Some, however, hid out and fought guerrilla-style on tree islands in the Everglades. U.S. soldiers stopped hunting these holdouts only when they no longer felt threatened by the hundred or so natives left in the inhospitable swamp.
As current Miccosukee Chairman Colley Billie wrote in a letter to Congress last spring, "We've always believed that the current government known as the United States of America is built on Indian lands... We went from a dry land environment to subtropical wetland. Although this new land was vastly different from any territory our people had ever encountered, we were able not only to adapt, but also eventually to thrive."
He continued: "Our position has always been to be left alone to live as we used to live before Columbus. Our original way of life has been made virtually impossible because the land that we used to depend on is not the same. In a sense, we have been forced to come out into the non-Indian world and learn how to be a part of it and live in it. One of our responsibilities... is to emphasize the quandary of the Everglades to create positive change."
In the mid-1900s, the U.S. government told Native American groups they could apply for recognition as nations and, in return, receive money and land rights. Some of them opted to form the Seminole Tribe, which was federally recognized in 1957.
But some howled at accepting payments to settle land claims. A group of these deniers formed the Miccosukee tribe. ("It's what the Creek-speaking people called the Miccosukee-speaking people because they raised pigs," Cypress explains. "Micco" means "chief" or "master," and "sukee" means pigs.) When the U.S. government initially resisted recognizing its sovereignty, Miccosukee leaders, employing what Cypress calls "an old indigenous strategy: go to the enemy of your enemy," organized a trip to visit then-public-enemy-number-one Fidel Castro in Cuba, who gave them a warm welcome. Not long after that, the feds granted the tribe recognition.
Today there are about 4,000 Seminoles in South Florida, 600 Miccosukees, and 50 Native holdouts who never enrolled in either tribe.
Geovanny Perez and Jean Sarmiento show outsiders the Everglades as part of LovetheEverglades.org.
Photo courtesy of Houston Cypress
Miccosukee territory includes the Tamiami Trail Reservation (the 33.3 acres that include housing are under permit from the National Park Service) plus three small parcels and a perpetual lease to use 189,000 acres of the Everglades. There's also a 75,000-acre Alligator Alley reservation and parcels at Krome Avenue for the casino and a tobacco shop.
Cypress remembers the grand opening of Miccosukee Resort and Gaming in 1989, when he was 9 years old. "I thought it was like a typical rez party. I'm there asking for aluminum foil [to take home leftovers]."
The casino "slowly started to fund progress -- health benefits, community projects." Soon there was a new school, a police department, more jobs. "We started to eat different food. No more turtle soup. No more Spam and saltine crackers."
Casino money also meant "we could hire lawyers to protect the Everglades, hire scientists to determine how clean the water should be." Indeed, the tribe embarked on decades of lawsuits that forced the federal government to set water quality standards.
And individual tribe members each receive payouts from casino revenues. Tribe members generally bristle at discussing dollar figures, but published reports have put the amount at $61,000 to $120,000 per member per year. Currently, the Internal Revenue Service is suing tribe members for not having paid taxes on this money.
"It's annoying" when people ask about the payouts, Cypress says, but he acknowledges that it "put me through school."
He first attended the University of Miami, "but I didn't last long there. I dropped out. I got involved in, like, psychedelics." A period of partying, he says, soon gave way to a more respectful appreciation for the psychoactive powers of sacred plants.
The tribal council gave him a job in the casino marketing department, and he was soon promoted. "I quickly became a supervisor," Cypress says, "the director of a $7.5 million-dollar budget while still in my early 20s." But after a while, he realized he was in over his head. "You can only wing it so far," he chuckles. So he quit.
He quickly took on Everglades restoration as a cause. The water coming into the Everglades was polluted. Extreme flooding was weakening trees and causing the loss of eight tree islands per year. Deer were disappearing, as was the endangered Everglades snail kite (a bird) and the apple snails they eat.
The tribe's land, situated between polluted Lake Okeechobee to the north and the precious Everglades National Park to the south, had been inundated by phosphorus-laden water -- and restoration projects were haphazardly funded. If that weren't enough, a sacred red bay tree -- "the principal ingredient in all our spirit brews" -- was disappearing, thanks to a fungus on an invasive species. And saltwater intrusion was a threat.
Around 2005, Cypress attended the Art Institute in Miami and then got the tribe's blessing to "take over community propaganda." He filmed a show called Miccosukee Magazine TV that aired on DirectTV as far away as Georgia. "My concept was a portal between worlds," he says. It was "sci-fi and trippy" but also "a contemporary view of actual Miccosukees."
Cypress acted as the writer, director, executive producer, and sometime-host. The documentary-style shows covered everything from traditional craft-making to boxing matches at the casino to tribal government issues. Some Miccosukees were nervous that he would share too much of the tribe's private traditions. To this day, there are certain ceremonies, like the Corn Dance, that are closed to all outsiders.
But Cypress says he knew where to draw the line. "I got criticized for the TV show. People were like, 'Why are you putting stuff out there?' ... There [was] a little bit of friction."
In late 2009, there was "a really, really big shift" in tribal politics when a new council led by Colley Billie took over leadership from Billy Cypress, who was found to be misspending tribal monies. This shift coincided with the global recession and drastic budget cuts. Eventually the TV show ended because of the cutbacks.
In 2012, Cypress' friend Jean Sarmiento, whom he'd met at the Art Institute, had a vision of taking people on airboat rides to teach them firsthand about the Miccosukee land and perspective. Geovanny Perez, who had come to learn about Miccosukee issues as part of his anthropology master's degree program at the University of Florida, also offered to help.
So the friends combined to form a new kind of environmental group that would allow outsiders to experience the Everglades. "It's easy to get depressed and overwhelmed" by the magnitude of destruction to the ecosystem, says Perez. "We thought: What if we get the public on our side? That's where Love the Everglades comes in."
Cypress proposed the idea to the tribe, which sponsored the cost of running the trips, and so far, they've taken more than 200 decision-makers into the Glades: artists, reporters, TV crews. They oppose a canal that delivers dirty water right into their land and call the $95 million spent on an Everglades bridge a boondoggle (5.5 miles more of bridge are planned) and want to stop the use of Indian lands as a wastewater storage zone. In the next phase, they hope to engage a wider audience. "We're waiting for Kim Kardashian and Dwyane Wade," Cypress says. "We want to show him the wading birds."
Cypress will accommodate almost anyone who promises to share and amplify his message: "Share it through your art, share it through your prayer, through policy change, through curriculum," he says.
One day a few years ago, Cypress headed to the Fort Myers History Museum to work on a Miccosukee Magazine TV episode about the history of the Tamiami Trail. There he met Woody Hanson, a fifth-generation Floridian whose ancestors had developed such close ties to Native Americans that they were invited to sacred ceremonies. "He kidnapped us and took us to see his photo archives," Cypress says.
Those archives, he recalls, showed -- among other things -- a man dressed as a woman.
Prior to that, "I kind of knew" about the concept of two-spirits, Cypress says. He had seen it mentioned in books "but never really connected with it."
Some historical clues show that Native American gays have long been persecuted. Spanish paintings from the 1500s depict suspected gays being ripped apart by dogs, and a later folk tale described a lesbian giving birth to a baby without bones. A 1906 tale called "The Hermaphrodite" from the Oklahoma-based Pawnee was about a boy who dreamed that a spider-woman was turning him into a woman. He committed suicide rather than be half-woman and half-man, the story goes. A 1903 tale, "The Sioux Woman Who Acted Like a Man," described a woman who dressed like a man and ruled in battle but knew that her family was ashamed of her. She climbed a horse and let her people kill her.
But there was also understanding. The Zuni nation in New Mexico had a word, "lhamana," for people who wore both male and female clothes, were physically strong, and were seen as mediators. A two-spirit Zuni named We'Wha was born a male but presented as a female and was so revered that he was sent to Washington, D.C., to represent the tribe. Ozaawindib, or "Yellow Head," was an Ojibwe woman from the Michigan area who, Cypress explains, "had a bunch of husbands and was a really badass warrior."
Anthropologists in the mid-1900s described how the Papago tribe of Arizona would test suspected two-spirit children by putting both a "male" and "female" tool -- a hunter's bow and a weaver's basket -- inside a circle of brush. The brush would be set on fire. If the kid grabbed the bow while running from the flames, he'd be raised a boy; but if he grabbed just the basket or both items, he would be raised a two-spirit.
The Miccosukees control more than 300,000 acres, but the majority of that area is wetlands. Today, most families live in modern housing on a single main road.
Felipe Marrou/VTM Productions
Lakota boys from North and South Dakota would go on vision quests in a sweat lodge, and a shaman would interpret the visions they had: "A white buffalo calf is believed to be [gay]," wrote Walter Williams in a 1992 book, The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. The Lakota give gays a special place in their sun-dance ceremony: a central pole has to be erected by one.
The term "two-spirit" is said to have been used first in Winnipeg, during the third-annual Native American/First Nations gay and lesbian conference in 1990. It was a translation of the Ojibwe phrase "niizh manidoowag" allegedly coined in Winnipeg by 13 gay and trans men and women. It was reportedly proposed by Albert McLeod, a man of indigenous descent who has said he grew up in "one of the most racist, homophobic communities our Western democracy could create." Attendees agreed that it was a more positive and sufficiently fluid term that could represent a spectrum of gender identities.
Today, Canadian artist Kent Monkman uses an alter ego, "Miss Chief Eagle Testicle," to explore depictions of homosexuality in native culture. For performances and self-portraits, he has dressed in drag wearing an Indian headdress and high heels.
But really, Cypress says, being a modern two-spirit is less about sexuality and "really about our role in our communities." It's not so much a "coming out" as it is a "coming in. Not an announcement -- just being present and available to your people."
Although no other Miccosukees are "out" as publicly as Cypress, he suspects the gay population in Native American communities is on par with the general populace -- about 8 percent. He has slipped information about two-spirits to a kid he suspects could benefit from it and has opened conversations with elders.
He took it "from a place of shame and came out and started to own it," he says. But more important, "I started to demonstrate my concern for the Ever-glades. As I stood up for our land, our community, and our customs, that's really what I was valued for."
As he did that, he says, "the people I thought were bigots, mean people, or plain-up assholes became my mentors."
A revelation came when Hanson showed him the black-and-white image from his family archives that included what appeared to be two beautiful native women in traditional dress. But Hanson explained that one was a man who over time had transitioned to live as a woman. He was Cypress' own ancestor.
"I'm like: mind blown, heart expanded, empowered."
On American Indian Day this past September, the Miccosukee casino was so packed that a trail of cars snaked out of the parking lot onto Krome Avenue. Kids squealed as they spun around on carnival rides outside the building -- a sound that was mostly drowned out by airboats zooming in the adjacent canal. Inside, there were specials on bingo, and upstairs in a ballroom with standing room only, Cypress was speaking to a mostly white crowd.
"Somos la gente de las Everglades," he said into a mic. "One of the elders I would like to honor is an old woman named Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. While she liked to thank people for their efforts in saving the Everglades, she also liked to turn that question around: 'What are you doing to save the Everglades?' We invite you -- los invitamos -- to connect with... the River of Grass."
A few miles west and a few weeks later, Cypress' 67-year-old uncle Michael Frank says he believes it's necessary for the younger generation of Miccosukees -- including his nephew -- to reach out to the public. He's ambivalent about the idea of two-spirits, but he admires his nephew.
"We need to let more people know about the destruction of the Everglades -- politicians, lawmakers, the public needs to be made aware. What Houston is doing is good."
He brushes away talk about two-spirits: "Don't do it; it's not right. That's not the way our creator made us." But, he says, there's no discrimination "that I know of" among the Miccosukees, and "everyone is treated with respect."
Mike Osceola is also Cypress' "uncle" ("The Otter clan is related to the Big Town clan"). And he is an openly gay Seminole living in Wilton Manors who says he's faced discrimination from every direction since he was "6 years old on a school bus" riding with white kids. "I've always known what I am," he says. "I'm Native American, plus left-handed, plus two-spirit, plus what else?"
He says Florida tribes long believed that two-spirits were "either shamans or -- not derogatory but had more of a special place." Still, he felt "an underlying nonacceptance."
He coped by trying "not to be obvious about it."
He says he's always known Cypress is gay. "I'm very, very proud of him and what he has accomplished with both the two-spirit issue and the Love the Everglades [organization]. I truly, truly admire him and support him."
Robin Merrill, who sits on the coordination circle of Love the Everglades, is a self-described evangelical Christian. Now 53 years old, she worked for years as a missionary in the Philippines, ministering to transvestite sex workers in the red-light district. "I'm the old white-lady missionary married with kids," she says. Between her and Houston, "we are not similar in our lifestyle, culture, or anything, but there are very few people who express themselves spiritually. We both do." Perhaps for that reason, they've bonded.
They're working on some art projects, including traditional dugout canoe-making and a Miccosukee paddle down the New River, for which she received a grant from the Knight Foundation. The "living waters tour" will consist of a two-hour cruise hosted by Merrill and Cypress.
Though Cypress is a dear friend, she believes that "there's no way you can have two spirits -- you have one." Still, "I like having a friend who is challenging -- who opens my eyes. Most people around here, I'm way too out there for them -- too aggressive, too progressive. I haven't really found like-minded cohorts to do some extravagant things in society who are ready, willing, and able. Houston is one of these. We're like, 'Dude, let's do this. Let's go for it.'"
In terms of her religion, "my job is not to change someone -- I've been commanded to love, whether I agree with someone or not. And Houston is the exact same way. 'Love' -- that's the first, most operative word."
Back at the casino on American Indian Day, Cypress narrates a Native American fashion show. Brandon Lee, a hipster teenager with black Buddy Holly eyeglasses and a dyed blue Mohawk, struts "in a fun and outgoing vest made to suit his unique style."
Another model sports "the colors you see around the ceremonial fires: bright and luminescent yellows with a celestial background."
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Still another model, Marta, "is glittering before you in a beautiful ensemble -- a fun and festive version of the outfit you saw Kay wearing."
And Little Zora wears an outfit made from "the colors you will find in the Everglades -- sparkling and incandescent greens!" he exclaims. "Psychedelic!"