Detribalization is the process by which persons who belong to a particular Indigenous ethnic identity or community are detached from that identity or community through the deliberate efforts of colonizers and/or the larger effects of colonialism.
Detribalization was systematically executed by detaching members from communities outside the colony so that they could be "modernized," Westernized, and, in most circumstances, Christianized, for the prosperity of the colonial state. Historical accounts illustrate several trends in detribalization, with the most prevalent being the role that Western colonial capitalists played in exploiting Indigenous people's labor, resources, and knowledge, the role that Christian missionaries and the colonial Christian mission system played in compelling Christian membership in place of Indigenous cultural and religious practices, instances of which were recorded in North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, and the systemic conditioning of Indigenous peoples to internalize their own purported inferiority through direct and indirect methods.
In the colonial worldview, "civilization" was exhibited through the development of permanent settlements, infrastructure, lines of communication, churches, and the construction of a built environment structured on altering and extracting resources from the natural environment. The stated justification to detribalize Indigenous peoples throughout the world was most frequently a "civilizing mission" – to liberate them from, what colonizers perceived as, their inferior and "uncivilized" ways of living. Detribalization in many regions was commonly enacted by detaching Indigenous persons from their traditional territories, cultural practices, and communal identities, while subjugating them to an exploited and marginalized class position within colonial capitalist society, often as an enslaved or indentured labor force for colonial industry.
De-Indianization has been used in scholarship as a variant of detribalization, particularly on work in the United States and Latin American contexts, although the term detribalization is also similarly used to refer to this process of colonial transformation on subsets of the historical and contemporary Indigenous population of the Americas. De-Indianization has been defined by anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla as a process which occurs "in the realm of ideology" or identity, and is fulfilled when "the pressures of the dominant society succeed in breaking the ethnic identity of the Indian community," even if "the lifeway may continue much as before." De-Indigenization or deindigenization have also been used as variants of detribalization in academic scholarship. For example, academic Patrisia Gonzales has argued how mestizaje operated as the "master narrative" constructed by colonizers "to de-Indigenize peoples" throughout Latin America.
While, according to James F. Eder, initial colonial detribalization most often occurred as a result of "land expropriation, habitat destruction, epidemic disease, or even genocide," contemporary cases may not involve such apparent or "readily identified external factors." In a postcolonial framework, "less visible forces associated with political economies of modern nation-states – market incentives, cultural pressures, new religious ideologies – permeate the fabric and ethos of tribal societies and motivate their members to think and behave in new ways."