Protecting the Sacred Land and Water of the Everglades

In Conversation: Houston R. Cypress (Yahalétke)

Houston R. Cypress is an environmental activist and multimedia artist from southern Florida. He is a member of the Otter Clan of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and lives on the Misccosukee reservation adjacent to Everglades National Park, the southernmost reservation in the US and the largest residential community affiliated with the park. He co-founded the Love the Everglades Movement, a nonprofit that works to restore the Everglades ecosystem, and runs Otter Vision production company. Cypress, whose name is Yahalétke in the Miccosukee language, is fighting now to prevent the construction of a new bicycle trail along the park’s border due to both environmental and cultural concerns. A leader in the Universalist spiritual organization Medicine Signs, he says, “universalism permeates all that I do.”

The Houston Cypress Photo courtesy of Houston Cypress Houston Cypress is a member of the Otter Clan
of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

What was it like to grow up inside the Everglades, the wildest place in Florida?

The name that we have in the Miccosukee language for the particular area where I grew up, and which I still call home, is Kahayatle. I like to translate it poetically as “shimmering waters,” or word for word, “the light in the water.” Or, as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas poetically describes it in here influential 1947 book on the Everglades, as the “river of grass.”

Growing up there as a kid, it was just a place to play! We would get dirty in the mud. We’d climb up trees and fall down. Our favorite thing to do as kids was to make trails. And we would chase snakes around, and watch the armadillos crawl around. Every now and then you’d see an otter peek its head out from behind some bushes. It was a place of play. A place of fun. That’s how I grew up; in the bushes.

There are also tree islands out there that we would visit for gardening purposes, or that we would visit with our uncle or grandpa to collect medicinal plants, or maybe to hunt for deer, or ducks, or fish. We would visit these tree islands as resting places or to camp out. Those islands have been a refuge for my community throughout history. That’s where people have died, and more importantly, that’s where people have survived. And hopefully that’s where people will thrive once again. We are part of a story that is alive, that is still being told, and that is still being passed on to the youngsters. There is a traditional indigenous narrative — that is our heritage.

I was also always taught to appreciate the distinction between our way of life and western civilization. I was reminded that our community found refuge in this area from US soldiers who wanted to annihilate us. Those are stories that are handed down by my great-grandfather from the Indian War era.

When the park was established in 1947, our community of people was forced out of the area known as Everglades National Park at gunpoint. We were told, “You cannot live here in this area any more.” That was very painful, in terms of the stories and community memory that I was given. They said, “Remember this Houston.”

Sometimes living on the reservation, which is right next door to the Shark Valley entrance to Everglades National Park, the park kind of felt off-limits. Even though it was right there. I remember hearing about our uncles and our grandparents being kicked out of this area at gunpoint, and thinking that “it doesn’t sound like any place I want to visit.” It always felt a little weird. There was this idea that the national park wasn’t for us, not anymore. It used to be our home, but it’s been occupied. There was a feeling that we should stay away.

But as I grew up, I started to become familiar with it, and started to enjoy actually riding a bicycle through the Shark Valley loop. I became more aware of the way that my community has been involved in preserving the environment, first through our story telling, second through our science, and third through our litigation. As I learned how my community, the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, got involved in Everglades restoration, I started to see how the park is often at odds with what the Miccosukee tribe is pushing for in terms of preservation, strategy, and policy.

There was a lot of dissention between the park and tribe, but now, going though decades of learning from uncles and from a broader community of restoration activists, I’m starting to realize that as much as we have a history of disagreement, my role is really to build avenues of communication, connections, and relationships. So I like to visit the place more often.

My feelings about the park and what it means, have been influenced by my own personal history and my tribe’s history, and have evolved over the past 20 years. As a park, as a region, all of these things color and influence my thinking and my feeling and my praying about Everglades National Park.

What changes have you noticed within your lifetime in the Everglades?

I’ve noticed more and more animals disappearing, especially the smaller critters. And we’ve been hearing about water contamination, which limits the way you can eat. Now you can only eat so many fish per month or you’ll get mercury poisoning.

My immediate family also started to re-inhabit some tree islands that my great-great-grandparents had abandoned. We set up a village. We went out there and cut down trees and brought in vegetables and fruit-bearing trees. Shortly after we did that, we came back to check on things and we saw that all of our plants had been ripped out. Signs from the state fish and wildlife agencies were posted on our structures, with really arrogant, aggressive language: “Who are you? What are you doing here?”

When the tribal council said, “this is legitimate and you can’t harass these people,” the agencies started backing off. That was in the early 1990s. I was thinking, “Wow, our tribe has been federally recognized since 1962.” That was the whole reason we started to articulate our rights. The same shit is happening in the 1990s that happened decades ago. All these stories we thought were in the past are still the same struggles we’re fighting today. We are just trying to go about our traditional way of life, but still we butt heads with the state and western civilization.

How do you feel about casual visitors to the Everglades?

I say, “Hey, that’s great.” I wish more people would come visit the park, then come right next store and visit our tribal tourist center. I wish there was a way that the Miccosukee and the national park could market themselves together. I want more people to come, but in ways that are respectful, and in ways that are not appropriating. In ways that are expressing solidarity with what the indigenous community is about.

Photo of Sunrise near the Anhinga Trail, Everglades National Park, FloridaPhoto by Diana Robinson“My feelings about the park and what it means…have evolved over the past 20 years,” says Cypress.”

I’ve heard that in your tradition, people are buried throughout the Everglades.

We have burial sites for rites of passage. And in wartime, a lot of people died in the Everglades. Those types of atrocities are serious, but we also understand that this shell that we are occupying right now, it has been made from earth and goes back to the earth. We look at the fact that the essence of the shells of our ancestors have been incorporated into the trees and the sawgrass. There’s that feeling of family, and connection, and unity with the natural landscape. Of the earth we were made, and to the earth we shall return.

How are you fighting the proposed bike path across South Florida? Isn’t biking a better form of transportation than cars?

The so-called “River of Grass Greenway”? I say it in quotes, to emphasize the ridiculousness of the title it was given. It’s a 76-mile pathway from the eastern end of Naples to Krome Avenue in Miami, right near the Miccosukee resort and gaming area. Most of it runs parallel to Tamiami Trail — a state road along the park’s northern border. This idea of a greenway is ridiculous — we’re looking at parking lots being built along the way, restrooms and rest stops being constructed, and electricity lines being added.

We’re currently examining the planning documents. The documents released so far do not include the appendix, and the appendix shows how the path could lead to further development. It’s not necessarily an opportunity for bikers to enjoy the environment.

One instance of opposition to the bike path has been organized by Bobby C. Billie, whose community is not affiliated with the federally recognized tribes — in that sense, his message has more authority and represents less of a compromise than the message of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. He says that, according to the laws of the breathmaker, the creator, we are responsible for taking care of the land, the water, and the plants. We’re just passing through, he says, and we have to take care of the land. We also echo his message by saying the Everglades are a sacred place. It’s sacred land, and it must be protected as such.

The Everglades has been strained at its very foundation with water contamination, which trickles up and down the food chain. It needs time to restore itself. We need to leave it alone so the plant and animal life can bounce back.

The bike path supporters respond by saying, “point out the burial sites and we’ll avoid them.” But it’s all sacred because of our belief in the philosophy of the circle of life. We don’t put our deceased in caskets so they can return to the Everglades. When we look at the trees and the sawgrass, elements of our ancestors are imbued in the natural environment. These are some of the spiritual points of view.

In terms of Everglades restoration, this path could interfere with ongoing restoration efforts. We’re really concerned that this bike path and parking lots will become an impediment to the process. Let’s use this $140 million investment in the bike path for restoration instead. We have a restoration process that is haphazard, done on a willy-nilly basis, without a sense of order. What happened to the restoration plan? Why aren’t we following it? My community talks a lot about how water quality is not being addressed fast enough. Let’s clean up the water first.

How did the Love the Everglades Movement get started?

My buddy Jean and I met in college at the Art Institute and became friends. Since we met, he’s become more open with spirituality and brought ceremony into his life. Because of that process, this vision for the Love the Everglades Movement dawned on him, and he brought it up to me.

“Hey, you live in the Everglades, why don’t we do this? Maybe we can find a way to get people to care about the area, and give the water the respect it deserves,” he said. “I didn’t really care until I went out there myself. Maybe we can take people out there to see it, and love it.” We were at dinner and it was late, around 1 a.m. and I said, “Hey let’s give it a shot.”

Our first Love of the Everglades Movement excursion was with friends and family during the winter solstice of 2012. It worked well, so we decided to keep doing it. We started planning outings two times a month and began building a community. As our outreach grew, we started to bring more people into the circle, including artists, researchers, and marketing friends. We were just doing excursions out in the Everglades — we didn’t want to call them tours. We don’t want this to be tourism. It is more than that.

Around the summer of 2013, an artist named Benoit Izard inscribed “love” in the ground, and he inspired us to “Love the Everglades,” which is where we got our name. Soon after that, the group was formally introduced to the Florida activist community at an art and activism networking event in Miami.

Over time we started to articulate this approach, the full spectrum approach. It’s inspired by the community of researchers doing integral theory. What that means is, we work on the level of body, mind, and spirit and use all the tools available to us, including art, spirituality, science, politics, and the best information. It is very eclectic. Everybody brings their own talents.

We want to diversify this movement. To be frank, that’s one of the big problems with environmental movements and Everglades related work: It’s too old, and it’s too white, and people only speak English. Tropical Audubon Society noted that problem and they’re trying to address it, and so are we. We’ve already made a few mistakes in our outreach, and we have to be respectful, so we’re not dictating, we’re listening more. It’s hard, but we feel it’s the only way to move forward.

We’ve had prayer circles in cities, art exhibitions, collaborated with cleanup projects, and supported indigenous movements. We’re having our second annual symposium in August, and partnering with an Everglades Awareness Benefit Concert in its eight year. We’re really proud to be working with world-class artists, like Lloyd Goradesky, who created the world’s biggest alligator art installation in Biscayne Bay.

What can an average person do to help Love the Everglades?

The world is watching what is happening with Everglades restoration, because it’s like a big experiment. Lots of technologies and methodologies are being tested here and then applied to other projects around the world.

We can also look at how indigenous communities are being consulted, and integrated into restoration. How have Miccosukee, and Seminole, and independent communities been treated here? How can we improve our relationships in other localities?

We’d like to encourage people to find ways to connect with their bioregions and watersheds. How are other people doing that? What types of recreational and spiritual activities are available, what sorts of policy are being implemented? Communities around the world are doing really awesome things that we’re being inspired by. I think it’s Bolivia’s constitution that recognizes the rights of Mother Earth, which inspired us to focus on the Rights of the Water during our symposium this past summer.

What can people do? Talk about the Everglades and help spread the word. Contribute to the work we’re doing. Pray for us. Stand in solidarity with us. Come and visit us. Contact us and share your ideas.

Finally, what about this idea of wild lands?

It’s a little bit frought. What I mean is that, I was talking with this woman, at a poetry workshop in Miami, and she was saying, “Look, even the way we talk about these areas highlight ways of thinking that are colonized.” She said that we used to call these places “natural areas” or “outdoors.” Sometimes it feels like “wild lands” are designated as such to prohibit human interaction with the landscape.

Sometimes we have to look at the language and it can reveal our intentions and political orientations. There’s a lot bound up in the language. As a poet, I love language, I appreciate the history and the etymology, and I embrace the terms too. We just have to give space to talk about those histories and those narratives.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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