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.