HOLLYWOOD — Tomasina Chupco Gilliam was just 13 when her grandmother died and it had a profound effect on the path her life would take.
She said it was her grandmother – Marie Tommie – who instilled in her a sense of family, respect for the Tribe, and motivated her toward education and career aspirations.
“I had to grow up rather quickly,” Gilliam said of her teenage years. “We were attached at the hip.”
Gilliam said she had an epiphany after high school that she should pursue alternative and holistic medicine in college and beyond.
She’d seen her grandmother treat her diabetes through a more naturopathic and traditional route – so Gilliam thought she’d eventually be that kind of practitioner herself.
“I was around her during all those teachable moments,” she said.
Gilliam would discover she had not only the desire to teach, but an ability to do so.
“Naturally, I love teaching, instructing and sharing knowledge with others,” Gilliam said. “It doesn’t help if I keep it [to myself]. That’s what led me into education – a broader view – that allows me to go into any field; teach any subject I want. My grandma said: ‘Whatever you learn, bring it back and teach people. Maybe they’ll teach it to others.’”
All in the family
The power of family ties and a formal education is a common theme for several members of the Gilliam family.
Gilliam is one in a line who has not only pursued higher education, but has decided to work for the Tribe after graduation.
Now 28 years old, she recently earned her doctorate in education from Lynn University. Gilliam previously earned a master’s degree in public health and a bachelor’s degree in alternative medicine from Everglades University.
Her brother, Rollie Gilliam III, earned his master’s degree in criminology in 2017 at Florida Atlantic University and their cousin,
Aaron Tommie, is about a year away from a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Florida.
Gilliam III works in the advanced career development program at the Center for Student Success and Services, while Tommie is an executive management trainee in the Tribe’s executive operations office.
Gilliam has been a project specialist at the Native Learning Center for about six months.
In addition, her older cousin – O’Hara Tommie – was instrumental in the development of the advanced career development program at the Tribe. He’s pursuing his own business interests now, Gilliam said.
“I’m proud of my family because we really embrace the education component,” Gilliam said.
Fort Pierce life
Gilliam, whose father is Rollie Gilliam Jr., was born and raised in Fort Pierce.
“Growing up in Fort Pierce built us for resiliency,” Gilliam said. The family lived near Vero Beach for a time before moving on the Reservation.
She considered her grandmother’s household to be a traditional Seminole one. After her grandmother died from diabetic complications in 2004, she went to live with her father’s sister.
Family and school would help her through the tough times. She was enrolled in private schools since the first grade with challenging and engaging curriculum. Gilliam always took honors classes which prepared her for “what was to come,” she said.
She attended John Carroll Catholic High School in Fort Pierce, graduating in 2009.
Later, Gilliam would use her master’s degree in public health for a job at the Tribe’s Allied Health Program to help develop its integrated health program.
“[Integrated health] is more mainstream now, but [Native Americans] have always used [herbalism] and the study of plants and medicine. I wanted to get a more structured sense of it,” she said.
After she earned her doctorate in education, she eyed a position at the Native Learning Center. It seemed like a good fit since the NLC is about instruction and program development with those who live and work in Indian Country.
Gilliam worked closely on her dissertation with Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a culture language instructor at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School in Brighton. She studied and wrote about the revival of the Muscogee-Creek language.
Gilliam said she looked at different points of view about why people think the language is dying. It took her back and forth from Hollywood to Brighton quite a bit.
“[Briggs-Cloud is] an expert in language, and of course the elders are there to help and the charter school. We’re pioneers in a lot of things. It’s important for other Tribal members to get involved through school or whatever their passion is,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam also travels to conferences and events as a guest speaker on women’s issues and health topics. She is currently working with her friend, Miss Indian World Cheyenne Kippenberger, to organize the “Healing the Circle in Our Tribal Communities” symposium to take place at the NLC Oct. 15-17.
“The demographic will be women who need more balance and guidance,” Gilliam said. “Whether it comes to domestic violence or knowing what a healthy relationship looks like. There will be a vast array of topics for women who want to gain that internal healing within a comfortable environment.”
Gilliam and Kippenberger got to know each other as workout partners at the Hollywood gymnasium. She was also a volunteer the night Kippenberger won the Miss Florida Seminole title.
Gilliam has no plans to leave Florida and wants to keep working for the Tribe. She wants to keep speaking at events and help other women, too.
Gilliam recently returned from a summit in Atlanta for women in business.
“It was amazing to be in a room full of women helping other women succeed,” she said.
When Gilliam isn’t working or traveling to speak at a conference, she likes to be at home watching movies, or out playing volleyball. She still does her workouts, too – every morning at 5:30 a.m.