You are here
Home > Arts & Entertainment > Montana Cypress delivers taste of Native life to movie biz

Montana Cypress delivers taste of Native life to movie biz

Montana Cypress

The Miccosukee Tribe is a relatively small one – tightly knit – with about 700 tribal members. It makes Montana Cypress fairly certain he’s the only one to pack up and make his way from the reservation to Southern California to direct, produce and act in films.

“Growing up, I made Sasquatch movies with my brother with a VHS recorder and digital camera,” Cypress said by phone from Burbank, California, where he lives. “I was always involved in making those kinds of things.”

Cypress grew up in Ochopee and left at age 27 to attend the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles where he graduated with an associate of fine arts degree in acting for film. Now 33, he’s found a niche and has increasingly made a name for himself in the industry after “hanging out playing rez ball for a good majority of my 20s with my brother.”

His older brother, Talbert, is a Miccosukee tribal leader. His older sister, Ashley, is a seamstress and Cypress said he has a “nice litter of nieces and nephews back home.” His father runs a chickee business and his mother is also a seamstress.

But home in Ochopee was a world away from Los Angeles and Cypress said that while there were Native Americans around, it took some time to connect.

“That was a hard part of the process. There are Natives here but they are spread out – Lakota, Arapaho, the list goes on. I only knew [of] Miccosukee and Seminole and what was on ‘Dances with Wolves,’” he said with a chuckle.

Cypress forged relationships through the Native Voices theater ensemble at the Autry Museum of the American West and his talents started to blossom.

“I [discovered during] acting school that I knew how to write,” he said. “I started writing plays; all of the stories centered on living on the rez. It was sometimes drama, sometimes comedy.”

Setting up a scene in the Everglades for the 2018 film “Two Brothers” are (from right to left) Montana Cypress, actor Joseph Adams and cinematographer Cooper Shine. (Courtesy photo)

Filmography

Cypress said he’s made seven or eight movies in all, but three are more well known – “Two Brothers,” (2018); “Christmas in Ochopee” (2018); and “The Transcenders,” (2020).

“Two Brothers” was Cypress’s first short film where he served as actor, writer and producer. It was adapted from one of his short plays and shot in the Everglades. It follows two Native brothers who move from a reservation to Los Angeles.

“It has very interesting themes; one of the guys has a dream to be really educated and smart and becomes an art snob,” Cypress said. “The other one is trying to write stories, screenplays and novels.”

It plays on Alaska Airlines flights and is expected to be available on YouTube later this year.

His second 2018 film is the farcical (in Cypress’s words) “Christmas in Ochopee.” It’s a 17-minute short comedy about a Native who brings his white vegan girlfriend to a reservation in the South. It’s available to view on YouTube.

His latest film, “The Transcenders,” was released last year and is scheduled to be screened at the Lumbee Film Festival in Pembroke, North Carolina on Sept. 18. It will be one of 18 new festival films that are directed by Indigenous filmmakers.

“The Transcenders” follows the struggles of two brothers who find a remedy that promises to “transform their primitive behavior” as they transition to life in the city from their upbringing on a reservation.

If the plots sound familiar, Cypress said that’s because the subject matter of his films are “somehow like an algorithm” of his life and experiences. He said he’s also found it ironic that “you write more about a place once you’ve moved from there.”

His current project is the film “Red Orchid.” Its production was delayed in 2020 because of the pandemic but he’s hoping to pick it back up this fall. The film takes place in an Indian camp in the Everglades in the late 1800s. It’s a departure from the drama-comedy theme and is “psychological horror, Cypress said. He said about 70% of the film’s dialogue will be spoken in the Seminole-Miccosukee language – Elaponke – and that some of the cast will consist of Miccosukee tribal members.

Montana Cypress, left, and cinematographer Cooper Shine, work on a scene for the 2020 film “The Transcenders.” (Courtesy photo)

Native presence

Cypress’s success comes at a time when Native Americans are being seen more frequently in front of and behind the camera.

“I think there has been a slight shift and it’s an exciting time,” Cypress said.

He recently met Sterlin Harjo – the Native American filmmaker behind the FX comedy series “Reservation Dogs” – at a coffee shop in Burbank, where he also met Lakota-Irish actor Zahn McClarnon.

“[Harjo] said he saw ‘Christmas in Ochopee,’” Cypress said excitedly. “It’s these things that inspire me to keep going.”

He’s also hopeful that Native American representation in Hollywood in general is improving. One example in his own career came when he was recently asked to appear on an episode about Natives in South Florida on the Nick Jr. learning app “Noggin,” a spinoff of Nickelodeon.

Cypress said representatives were looking for Native Americans to help develop and act in an episode based in South Florida.

“They could have gotten any person that looked like an Indian with dark hair and dark skin but they wanted the actual thing,” Cypress said.

The episode features Native history, airboat rides in the Everglades and alligators. He wore a vest with traditional Miccosukee patchwork for the episode.

Cypress said the Seminole Tribe’s Everett Osceola was brought on the project to help with the script. Cypress said he’s always seen the Seminole Tribe as neighbors. He also has a half-sister who is Seminole.

“On my rez you see Seminoles and on their rez you see Miccosukee,” he said. “We’re the same to a certain extent; we share the same language and clan system. When we go to Corn Dance we’re all one.”

More is at montanacypress.com.

Read Offline:
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
Top