Native American Heritage Month Student Spotlight: Kaela Chisholm Turner


Kaela Chisholm Turner

Kaela Chisholm Turner

Jesse Chisholm

Jesse Chisholm


In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we spotlight Kaela Chisholm Turner (Class of 2022), whose Cherokee heritage includes her fourth-great grandfather, Cherokee trader Jesse Chisholm, namesake of the Chisholm Trail originating in Texas and ending in Kansas and used during the late 19th century to drive cattle overland.

“He traded between white settlers’ villages, traveling according to seasons, as Plains Indian tribes did. He was known for his ability to bridge differences between Native Americans and white settlers,” said Kaela, a fourth-year veterinary student from Ramona, Oklahoma.

Kaela’s family is among the last living descendants of Jesse Chisholm, whose contributions to the American West are celebrated at the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, Oklahoma.  

Kaela is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and has a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (based on ancestors of Indian blood who were enrolled with a federally recognized Indian tribe, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs) and Cherokee Nation Voter ID card. With Cherokee ancestors on both her mother’s and father’s sides of her family, she grew up participating annually in Cherokee festivities and activities designed to teach the children about their Native American heritage, including powwows, cultural dancing, cooking, and language classes. 

She shared that the word for Cherokee is Tsa-la-gi and that each letter represents a syllable. The Cherokee syllabary was invented by Sequoyah, of the Cherokee Nation, in the late 1810s and early 1820s as a means to write the Cherokee language.

“One thing I love about my tribe is that we have stories about Earth, seasons, and patterns that often revolve around animals. Growing up with these stories brought a sense of awe and a love of animals,” Kaela said. 

She has known since she was eight years old that she wanted to be a veterinarian. She grew up around cattle on her maternal grandparents’ ranch. It was there that she put out hay, fed, castrated, and even pulled a calf when the birth became difficult. Her love of rodeo came from her uncle, who was a bull rider.

“My great grandmother would take me to heritage sites near the tribal seat at Tahlequah, Oklahoma. She took me to swim in a creek no matter how cold it was--a good memory, too,” Kaela said. 

“How the Milky Way Came to Be” is one of Kaela’s favorite stories, which you can read here. “I like it because it is one way of putting everything in creation in its place,” she said.

Lately, her veterinary studies occupy most of her time, but she has attended the inter-tribal Coushatta Powwow in Kinder, La., where the culture is celebrated through dance, song, arts, and food. She and her husband have land in Mittie, La., near DeRidder, and look forward to living on a moderately sized farm with several horses and cattle after she graduates in 2022. Her career plans include a mixed-animal practice, although her passion is cattle.

What is one thing she would like non-Native American people in the U.S. to understand about her culture? She pauses for a moment and recalls when a Native American boy was held down at school by non-Native American classmates who cut off his braid. “There is no reason to disrespect someone because they look or act different from you. Everyone needs to understand that there are different cultures and none of them are right or wrong.” she said. 

Native Americans are often overlooked as a minority group in her experience. “Our tribes were stewards of the land before immigrants came along. This land was ours before it was anyone else’s. We are often forgotten when mainstream institutions contemplate issues, be they environmental, cultural, or otherwise. I want to see that change,” she said. 

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Sandra Sarr, MFA

Communications Coordinator