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Interview with HOUSTON CYPRESS

Dara Friedman

Inflection Points, 2016 Spiritual and Interactive Installation Curated by Rev. Houston R. Cypress Miami River Produced by Tigertail Productions
Reverend Houson R. Cypress is a Miccosukee artists, activist, and ordained minister. He runs Love the Everglades, an organization that develops platforms and initiatives for environmental protection and cultural preservation. He has also emerged as an important voice in advocating for twospirit and nonbinary gender peoples. Miami artist Dara Friedman interviewed him at his home in the Everglades.

DARA FRIEDMAN (RAIL): What does it look like when you have two communities, that are separate and distinct, and yet there are places where they overlap? Does your work with Love the Everglades come from this state?

HOUSTON CYPRESS: The work with the Love the Everglades Movement . . . I want to be able to honor and respect the Miccosukee community that I’m from, so I like to echo the messages that the Tribe as an organization puts out there when it comes to Everglades matters—policies and proposals for solutions. I’m interested in supporting the coalition-building efforts of people in my community, but also from other communities in South Florida. It can be a little frustrating when people think that we’re a Miccosukee organization. We love the Miccosukee Tribe; we honor their message, because that’s where I’m from, but we also want to make friends with other communities and honor their messages as well. It’s been interesting as we build these coalitions to see how we can make a distinction between the communities that we represent, and that we’re from, and also the communities that we’re making friends with and learning from. It’s interesting to find those areas of tension and see how that can be resolved or not. Sometimes it’s good to lean into those discomforts. It helps each us grow and learn from each other, but it’s also really good to maintain those distinctions and respect each other’s sovereignty.

RAIL: So, that to me is really, really interesting. I am very interested in this uncomfortable place that happens when things overlap, but I’m also aware that you can only enter that uncomfortable place if you remain respectful. It’s a balancing act and I’m very interested in that spot. One has to enter it with respect.

CYPRESS: I just learned a new word the other day, “the groan zone,” that’s that area, that’s that space that we’re talking about.

RAIL: The groan zone. Is that what that is?


RAIL: Like when you start to cringe and sweat and think, oh my god, this is so embarrassing, okay . . . I’m going to stay! “The groan zone.” Who told you that one?

CYPRESS: I learned the term because I joined the Natural Resources Leadership Institute put on by UF. It’s about conflict management as it relates to natural resources and environment. We’re learning about strategies to facilitate meetings and discussions so that everybody is heard and everybody’s respected.

RAIL: What are some of the techniques used so that everyone’s heard?

CYPRESS: Active listening. Active listening is good. Making sure that everyone has a chance to speak. . .

RAIL: (cutting in) It reminds me of when Mark [Handforth] did a piece in France. It was a large public artwork, and there was a public forum and everybody in the community came and had something to say. And the politician, the deputy mayor of Paris, let everybody in the room ask their question first. Everyone in the room got a chance to speak. And then after everyone spoke, then they chose which questions they were going to answer. The heat and tension in the room went way down because everybody could get it off their chest, and make themselves heard. Yes, I can imagine it’s very important to have techniques like that to manage conflicts and make progress. That’s so interesting. So are you going to apply this good knowledge to protecting the water in the Everglades?

CYPRESS: That’s the goal; over the nine-month training program we have to come up with a practicum, which is a proposal of how to apply that to our work. I have to start brainstorming now, but I want to look at how we can continue to do the work of coalition-building and facilitating dialogue between communities. So I’d like to bring people from my community to the table and people that speak other languages. That’s important to me.

RAIL: What languages?

CYPRESS: I don’t know, Spanish, Haitian Creole, or other languages, because I’m frustrated with the English-dominant discourse around Everglades matters. . . And I want to see how that comes in through art, too, because we just made friends with a Spanish-speaking literary conference that honors the work of Marjory Stoneman Douglas. It was really beautiful to see that this has been happening for . . . I think this is the 12th year that they’ve been getting together. So, people like that.

RAIL: Unrelated but related, next month I’m going to Berlin to film a poetry project and I’m very interested in opening it to all languages. I’m interested in the cadences and the way the languages feel in your mouth. These will be poems that you would have ingested as a teenager. And having digested them over time, what’s it like when they come out again? What energy, or transformative magic do they contain, and how do the words feel in your mouth? And I think it’s interesting that you’re going to languages, because if meaning is understood, language is sort of getting in the way because it is by definition culturally specific and loaded. On the flip side of that, you’re such a good speaker. I’m still practicing . . .

CYPRESS: I’ve been feeling really empowered by Brené Brown, a social worker whose focus has been on shame and vulnerability and strategies to lean into that discomfort and grow through it. In those kinds of situations where somebody has anxiety around speaking, the mantra that she uses, and that I’ve adopted is: “Don’t shrink, don’t puff up, but stand on your sacred ground.” And it takes practice.

RAIL: It does. Stand on your sacred ground makes me want to share something. I have two daughters, both born through natural childbirth, and during the birth of my first child Violet, the doctor kept talking about contractions during labor, and I thought, “Okay, this is bullshit. This is not contractions, this is expansions. And if we could just change this word, we change the situation, and I could,” as you say, “‘stand my sacred ground,’ and get as big as a house to make this happen.” I had to learn that on the spot. I felt the language, the word “contraction” was fucking up the situation, and once I switched it in my mind to “expansion,” the whole situation was redefined and could work. Okay, so back to the issue of Everglades conservation, water management . . . Do you think there is one thing that, if that could be done, would initiate a lot of positive change?

CYPRESS: I would have to advocate for multiple things happening at the same time, and that’s kind of been the strategy that I’m working with. But different people will advocate for different things. A lot of people like to promote politics and funding, but I am remembering, being inspired by the Circle of Life teaching from my community. That’s what I advocate, working across the full spectrum of being. Politics and science are really good ways of action and knowing, but there’s also art, and there’s also spirituality and performance. And so I advocate for working across that full spectrum of being. I can’t pin it down to one thing.

RAIL: That’s a good smell. Is that a fire going? It’s smells really good.

CYPRESS: And so I also wanted to just bring into this discussion, this little chat, that I’m getting ready to take a road trip, and this has become like a pilgrimage for me. I’m going to visit the Two-Spirit Gathering that’s organized by the East Coast Two-Spirit Society.

RAIL: Where’s that?

CYPRESS: This time they’re getting together in a western part of New York state, just over the Pennsylvania line. And I’m reminded of that because I did a project recently, in April, with Tigertail Productions and Mary Luft, and during that project we were able to honor one of our Two-Spirit elders—her name is Sharon Day. I first met her when I went to that Two-Spirit gathering, I want to say like 2-3 years ago. And at the time I didn’t know it was her. I was learning about Two-Spirit traditions in communities for a couple of years before I had the courage to go and visit the community. And so in my reading her name came up a bunch of times as someone who was instrumental in organizing these communities around Two-Spirit matters, and it was only after I left the gathering that I was like, “Oh, that was Sharon Day.” Since then I’ve learned of her work advocating for the water, her community, and her tradition of “water walks,” where they walk and they pray carrying the samples of the water. They follow the bodies of water, whether it’s a river or walking the perimeter of a lake, and in this way they honor and respect and heal the water. We were able to bring some attention to her work in that installation that we did earlier this year. So I’m going to go back to visit that community again in about 2 weeks and when we talk about decolonization, that’s a big important part of the work that Sharon Day and the Two-Spirit communities are doing. That’s what that is about.

RAIL: Is she from this community?

CYPRESS: Her community is Ojibwe, and so I think she’s living in Minnesota. That side of the work, of decolonization, is concerned with gender diversity—either restoring those traditions in the communities that have hidden them or lost them, or introducing them to communities that don’t have them at all. Because there’s such a wide spectrum of communities across Turtle Island, across North America, that some communities have traditions that respect gender diversity, others are tolerant, and others are not. This is the kind of work that these Two-Spirit communities and gatherings are concerned with. Have they been hidden because of history, because of colonization? Have they been beaten out of the communities because of genocidal policies? Did they even exist in those communities? Those are some of the questions that we have been praying about in these ceremonies when we get together in different places around the country. So I’m really looking forward to it. It’s been a process of really deep healing for me. It’s been on going for me for about 4 years now.


Photo: Niki Gleoudi

RAIL: So that relates to what you’re saying about the multiple point of change . . . If you’re going to accept the Two-Spirit community, then you’re also going to be able to see the importance of water as needing to be served by everybody. So things are related and overlap. I’m so interested to learn more about what you’re learning at that UF classes.

CYPRESS: Yeah, it’s been really impressive. We’re going to be visiting different locations around the state. We went to Fort Lauderdale a few weeks ago, in August. That was our first session. We learned what’s going on with the port expansion there, and they are learning from the mistakes that Port of Miami did, so as to avoid them in Fort Lauderdale. Next week we’re going to go to the Rodman reservoir in North Florida, and we’re going to visit 6 other sites between now and April, and meet the communities that are there and facilitate discussions.

RAIL: And are you hopeful?

CYPRESS: Yes, and I’m nervous. Nervous because people have strong feelings, and again, it’s that learning to live in uncomfortable areas. But it’s not really uncomfortable, it’s serious. People are going to talk about why are they angry? Why are they sad? Or what are they feeling left out of? Or what are their successes? Where have they been heard and what are their great ideas?

RAIL: Or maybe they’ll indirectly speak of it. Like sort of what we learned about with Brexit this summer, that people push for one thing—that they want “out of here,” when what they mean is “pay attention to me.” People don’t generally say what they mean—they clamor and agitate. So it does take really careful listening to unpack, because they can seem to be very direct and clear but that’s not what they mean. They say all sorts of strong, rash things, when really what they mean is that they feel neglected, or unheard, disrespected.

CYPRESS: I’m learning through this healing work that I’ve been involved with the last couple of years . . . I’m learning about the things that get in the way of that for myself. Like how when my anger would come up, maybe it was masking sadness, or when my avoidance, my behaviors of avoiding and isolating are coming up, maybe it was masking some other difficult emotion. I’m learning how to be more clear and honest. That gives me the compassion to be patient with others, to let them speak more, to see and to listen and to understand better.

RAIL: So there’s this thing of seeing the thing from someone else’s point of view, but then also making your point of view clear at the same time—being able to jump sides constantly. Maybe artists are good at that? It does take a fair amount of imagination and compassion but also determination to hold on to your own clarity . . . You’re going to have a lot of success.

CYPRESS: And a lot of groans.

RAIL: Maybe it’s like the litmus test, you know you’re in the right territory when you hear the groans? What elicits the groan? Is it something that’s painfully obvious or embarrassing?

CYPRESS: Or the unspoken . . . like, these are my assumptions; these are my prejudices, and now we can say it and grow through that.

RAIL: You mean giving voice to your assumptions and prejudices?

CYPRESS: Yeah, yeah.

RAIL: Right—in order to achieve a level of self-awareness, and not roll around in a state of un-self-awareness. Which ultimately is honesty. Yes, it is incredibly confusing when we are being open, listening actively, being respectful, all these good things—and we run into dishonesty. A roadblock of lies . . . which aren’t even identifiable as lies at the beginning. All you know is that everything you are doing has lurched to a stop. What to do then? How to navigate that? Can you ask that on your course? Because I feel like during this election cycle we’re being confronted with a new perspective on lies and honesty. Perhaps lying to the public was always done, but it was veiled. And I’d like to know how to navigate that, how do you deal with a bald-faced lie? You know? I feel like this could be a manual that every kid gets handed, “How to Deal with Lies.” I feel like that’s in there air now, and I’m girding my loins for the mountains of misogyny that’s in the pipeline as well. It would be great if there was like some sort of wing chun defense strategy to deal with bald-faced lies. So, going back to our subject of decolonization . . .

CYPRESS: You know I’m reminded of the definition that we’re using in the Two-Spirit community: It’s intentional, it’s communal, it’s collective. What we’re trying to do is to bring these ways of being and ways of thinking from our pre-colonial past, through to today. So we can enact a self-determination for how we want to live moving forward. I think those are the elements. There’s a better way of phrasing it, but those are the elements that are involved with the Two-Spirit community work that we’re doing—connecting with the past, in a communal intentional process, and using that information to chart a path forward that honors who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re becoming.

RAIL: So the key word is self-determination.

CYPRESS: Yeah, and so for me it’s like a prism that sovereignty is being expressed through. Whether sovereignty is expressed through the arts, through the ceremonies, or through our gardens, or the ways that we love one another.

Dara Friedman is an artist based in Miami.