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.