This timeline of historically traumatic events was authored by Karina L. Walters, Ph.D. (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Indigenous Wellness Research Institute, University of Washington, with assistance from Danica Brown, Ph.D. (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma).
Historically traumatic events are events designed to eradicate a people (genocide) and/or their culture, language, and lifeways (ethnocide) and/or their worldviews, teachings, and epistemologies (epistemicide). Historically traumatic events should not be confused with other events that are traumatic, such as natural disasters. These, too, produce significant trauma and upheaval, but historically trauma events specifically target a group — by nationality, religion, or other oppressed status — with the intent to eradicate or, in some cases, subjugate and assimilate the group into the dominant class. Historically traumatic events include massacres, forced relocation and removal from traditional homelands, forced removal and separation of children from parents, and medical experimentation, among others. They are never singular events but consist of a series of targeted traumatic events over generations. They are experienced as collective traumas and, in many cases, the psychological, physical, and spiritual aftermath can be carried into subsequent generations — whether these events are known or conscious among subsequent generations. Recent epigenetic research is beginning to provide preliminary evidence of intergenerational transmission of stress from traumatic events in preceding generations.
It is important to note that historically traumatic events targeting American Indians and Alaska Natives in what is now the United States of America is particularly fraught and continues to manifest to this day. Historically traumatic events include not only events from 500 years ago but also those that happen daily in modern times. For example, the illegal dispossession of Indigenous lands for oil extraction in the Dakota Access pipeline or the targeting of Native women and girls for sexual exploitation and human trafficking, leaving a trail of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the United States and Canada, are prime examples of modern historically traumatic events.
Finally, historically traumatic events do not occur in isolation from the polices and structures that support the unfolding of such trauma. American Indian and Alaska Native communities continue to survive and thrive despite being continuously occupied and living within the structures of U.S. settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a system that is born of land dispossession and attempted erasure of Indigenous land ties and identities. Settler colonialism is the structure, and historically traumatic events serve to perpetuate and uphold the structure, system, and policies of a settler colonial society.
This chronological timeline provides three elements: settler colonial policies, historically traumatic events, and the resistance movements by Indigenous peoples in fighting oppressive and genocidal polices and surviving historically traumatic events. The events documented here are not exhaustive; there are many more stories of atrocities among the current 573 federal and 100 state tribes than can be documented here. The events presented are often mislabeled as wars, battles, or skirmishes in U.S. textbooks. The events in this timeline are not wars. They are known to Native communities as massacres, primarily targeting women, children, and communities for the purpose of extermination or subjugation.
Historically traumatic events are, by definition, genocidal events. According to Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide , genocide is defined as: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Noting such atrocities and in support of Indigenous peoples worldwide, in 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was passed, delineating and defining the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, including their ownership rights to cultural and ceremonial expression, identity, language, employment, health, and education. It “emphasizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.” It “prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples,” and it “promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them and their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development” with a major emphasis on Indigenous rights to protect their culture and tradition in order to preserve their heritage from over controlling nation-states. In 2010, President Obama declared support for the declaration.