"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.