The. Rev. Houston R. Cypress: Healing waters, healing culture

arts / Article

Photo by Janice Angel. All photos courtesy of Love the Everglades Movement.

The Rev. Houston R. Cypress, also known by his Miccosukee name Yahalétke, is a poet, artist, environmental activist and ordained minister. Through his organization, Love the Everglades Movement, Cypress has become a major force within Miccosukee society as an advocate for cultural preservation, environmental protection, business development and sovereignty. Cypress also acts as a cultural ambassador, leading the way for meaningful exchange and connection between his society of clans and the outside world.

On April 2, Cypress will lead the Miccosukee Embassy History and Tour, presented as part of Tigertail Productions’ month-long Water festival. “Inflection Points,” a spiritual and interactive art installation commissioned by Tigertail, a Knight Arts grantee, will be activated during the tour.

“‘Inflection Points’ is a project that builds on the work that my collaborator Jean Sarmiento and I have been doing through the Love the Everglades Movement for a few years now,” Cypress says. “An inflection point is that identifiable moment in space-time when the trajectory of a process changes direction. Here you can influence Everglades restoration by sharing your intention for the water, with the water.”

The installation and ceremony borrow water from 13 sites located throughout the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades watershed–the Greater Everglades. These clearly identified and borrowed waters will be brought together at the Miccosukee Embassy, which is a sacred site for the Miccosukee community. Once the interactions are complete, the water will be returned to the various collection sites.

Photo by Janice Angel.

“In the mathematical disciplines, an inflection point is the point on a curve when the curve changes direction,” says Cypress. “In other places, it’s a time of significant change. It’s a turning point.”

Cypress hopes that “Inflection Points” will mark a turning point in the way attendees, and eventually all of us, relate to this precious natural resource. “We’re going to be conducting two rounds of ceremonies that afternoon at the Miccosukee Embassy, during Miami River Day. We’ll have an invocation, spoken word poetry, storytelling of the origin of the sacred site from an indigenous elder,” he says. “And while people have an opportunity to interact with the water nodes, we’ll be serenading them with water songs from Two-Spirit Elder Sharon Day, a music video by dub musicians Agape featuring Nadia Harris, and an album called ‘Voices of Everglades National Park’ recorded by the late James T. Miller. In essence, ‘Inflection Points’ is a ceremony of healing for the water using shamanic techniques.”

The Rev. Houston R. Cypress. Photo by J.C. Mendez/DVFX Studios.

In many respects, Cypress himself is an inflection point, the embodiment of a change agent trying to bend the arc of two cultures–Miccosukee society and larger South Florida community–in the same direction. After all, South Floridians depend on the Everglades just as much as the Miccosukee do.

The fluidity of water also offers an apt metaphor for Cypress’s own journey toward Two-Spirit identification, a more dynamic view of gender and sexuality that exists within many indigenous cultures. “I’m from a society of clans that teaches how we grow through many names in our lives. My identity is rooted in the customs, rites, and traditions of the Otter Clan. When I was born, I was given a public and private name in the Miccosukee language, and also an English name for the paperwork,” Cypress explains. “When it came time for rites of passage, my family chose a clan ancestor for me to take on their ceremonial name. Then puberty hit, hormones started to flow, and a delicious sort of dynamic evolved which forced me to learn to balance the flesh and the spirit. I’m still learning! LOL,” he adds with a laugh.

Finding one’s identity isn’t all LOLs, however. It’s a learning process, one that led Cypress to an important self-discovery, which is ultimately manifested in his art and activism today.

“I didn’t know any better, so I started my slow process of coming out as a gay man,” says Cypress. “I thought that was something at odds with my Miccosukee community and culture, until I started learning about gender diversity in other indigenous communities. I connected with the Northeast Two-Spirit Society and went to the International Two-Spirit Gathering in upstate New York. At the same time, I met Woody Hanson from Ft. Myers. It turns out he had pictures from the early 1900s of a Miccosukee man who transitioned to living his younger years in the women’s roles. Later, that person returned to expressing themselves in the men’s role, but it showed me that there was a precedent for gender diversity in my own community. Something I never knew about, nor bothered to ask about.”

Feeling like a shapeshifter, Cypress moved into a dark personal space, one that began to slowly tear him down.

“Growing into a Two-Spirit person continues to take me further on a path of healing and wholeness and balance, because I’m coming out of a place of imbalance. I was closeted, I was self-medicating, I was ashamed,” says Cypress. “Through ceremony, through plant medicine, through art, through therapy and 12-step fellowships, through Two-Spirit and queer and LGBT communities, and honoring my own Miccosukee spirituality, I’m starting to integrate the disparate elements of my self, to sculpt myself into a glittering prism of light. And I look forward to contributing to the growth of these cultures and communities in an active, artistic and challenging way.”

The “Inflection Points” program led by Cypress as part of Tigertail’s Water festival will take place from 3-4:30 p.m. on April 2 at the Miccosukee Embassy, 1750 N.W. South River Drive, Miami. The event is free.

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